CAMDEN, NJ— As part of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, Camden children traveled to the CAMcare Gateway facility Tuesday to learn about how to wash their hands, healthy eating and lead safety.

The event, which also featured giveaways, information on lead poisoning prevention and screening and free home lead testing kits for members of the public, was organized by Lead and Healthy Homes and the Camden City Lead Poisoning Prevention Subcommittee, a program of the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative.

According to data from the New Jersey Department of Health, in 2016 a little less than 24 percent of Camden children under the age of six have been tested for exposure to lead — compared to the national average of 95 percent.

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“Camden has a lot of old housing stock that was built before 1978, which is when lead paint was banned,” said Kelly McLaughlin, program coordinator of the cooperative's Southern Regional Lead and Healthy Homes Coalition. “So there’s still a lot of homes in the city that have lead-based paint hazards, as well as other sources in the home where kids can be exposed.”

A year ago, the Southern Regional Lead and Healthy Homes Coalition formed the Camden City Lead Poisoning Prevention Subcommittee to increase lead screening rates among Camden City children.

McLaughlin said that while lead paint is the leading cause of lead exposure to children, they can also be exposed to lead in water, soil, and items from other countries such as spices, candles, religious products and jewelry.

“Paint is the primary exposure,” McLaughlin said. “Lead paint has a sweet taste to it, so when kids put it in their mouth it doesn’t necessarily taste terrible to them.”

Children from St. Joseph’s Nursery School, Camden Kids Academy and Camden Day Nursery learned from Rinsey the Racoon how to wash their hands properly, an effective preventive measure against lead exposure, said, McLaughlin. They also stopped at a Virtua Mobile Unit to learn about healthy eating, another preventative measure.

The amount of lead dust it takes to cause permanent brain damage in children is no more than what could fit into a sugar packet, said McLaughlin, who is also the lead of Healthy Homes coalition.

“We want to create awareness in the public that parents should send their children for lead testing because by the time those children start manifesting the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning, it's too late,” Camden County Health Officer Paschal Nwako, PhD, said.

According to Nwako, lead poisoning can cause attention deficit issues and flu-like symptoms, but they vary from child to child.

“When they have started presenting such symptoms and signs, it's good to have them tested for lead first and take that out of the equation,” Nwako said.

Children should be tested for lead exposure between the ages of one and two, McLaughlin said, and no later than the age of six.

Camden County offers free lead screening for children six and under.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of lead paint or lead dust for significant health effects to occur,” McLaughlin said. “That’s why it's really important for parents to get their children tested for lead, and the only way to know if a child has been exposed is by getting a blood test done by their doctors.”