Lead Levels in Oakland May Exacerbate Burmese Refugee Children's Health

A Burmese family rest in a temporary camp on the Thai/Burma border. (    Rusty Stewart: Flickr)
A Burmese family rest in a temporary camp on the Thai/Burma border. (Rusty Stewart: Flickr)

Some Burmese refugee children heading to the U.S. have toxic levels of lead in the blood, according to a study released this week in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention measured lead levels in Burmese children living in Thai refugee camps. They found that children under age two were at highest risk. Fifteen percent of them had lead poisoning, as did five percent of all children. That compares to less than one percent of all children in the U.S. [PDF] But Burmese refugee children who resettle in Oakland may not be very safe against lead exposure, once they arrive here.

Joan Jeung, a pediatrician who works with Burmese refugees at Asian Health Services in Oakland, was quick to identify the problem. "Moving from a low-income area and conditions of political oppression in Burma, to low-income areas here in the United States where environmental lead levels area still high, I think the quickest link to find is poverty."

About 400 Burmese refugees resettled in Oakland since 2007, and the majority are living in extreme poverty, with many families surviving on less than $1,000 a month, according to a joint study by San Francisco State University and the Burma Refugee Family Network. In addition nearly two-thirds of them are unemployed.

Many Burmese refugees in Oakland live in older, low-income homes that may have lead-based materials in the house -- like the paint on the walls. Jeung says those with younger kids should be particularly cautious in such living situations.


"[Children two and under] are the ones who may be eating with hands contaminated with lead dust. Whether it's dust from the windowsills or paint chips from the walls, they have this hand-to-mouth eating pattern that would allow for greater lead contamination."

Lead poisoning is extremely toxic and can severe health effects on children, including brain damage, mental retardation and lowered IQ levels.

Jeung says she screens all new refugee children in her practice for lead exposure and that she she recently treated a two-year-old with toxic lead levels. "It's anyone's guess how much came from her country of origin, or the refugee camp where she lived in Thailand, or how much came from her Oakland home."

Jeung connected the child's family with the Alameda County Public Health Department. Jeung says public health officers were able to identify, then remove, the sources of lead in the family's home. The clean up program helped the child. "By removing a lot of the lead sources within her Oakland home, we were able to significantly decrease her lead levels."

The CDC considers the threshold for lead poisoning in children to be 10 micrograms or more of lead in the body. But this month a federal advisory panel recommended dropping that number to 5 micrograms [PDF] because of new research (like this study) pointing to adverse health effects in kids with lead levels below 10 micrograms.