Tazewell County is a neighbor to other counties with some of the highest levels of lead found in children in the state, but its own numbers are lower.

Tazewell ranks near the bottom quarter of the state’s 102 counties in percentages of children ages 6 and under with dangerous lead levels, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

However, the number of Tazewell children with levels that required the County Health Department to take action to ensure their safety has risen slightly over the past two years compared to similar recent periods.

“We are better off in general, but don’t let your guard down,” said Angie Phillips, the county department’s director of clinical services.

That advice holds true particularly for residents of South Pekin, Delavan and Armington in southern Tazewell, which the IDPH has designated over recent years as the county’s high-risk lead areas.

Phillips speculated that much of the housing in those communities was built before 1978, when lead was eliminated from house paint.

Over the past 17 months the county has recorded 12 cases of high lead levels in children that required county health department “intervention” with families, Phillips said. All of them were traced to lead dust from peeling paint, either inside or outside of the homes.

A total of 14 cases were recorded in 2014-15, an increase of eight from the previous two years and of five between 2010-11, the county department reported.

Even low levels of lead in young children has been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Higher levels are known to contribute to violent behavior, learning disabilities and developmental delays.

An IDPH report of child lead levels in 2015 showed Knox County possessed the third highest percent of children testing positive for moderate to high lead levels in the state and at some of the highest levels. Other west-central counties cited with high percentages were Mason, Stark, McDonough and Fulton.

Tazewell had the 76th highest percentage, said IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold.

Counties with high lead levels in children also have higher numbers of pre-1978 housing stock than the statewide average of 66 percent, according to the IDPH report. In Tazewell, 71 percent of its housing units pre-date that year.

Higher lead levels coincide with both older housing stock and low-income levels, according to the IDPH report. Studies show children living in or near poverty often suffer from poor nutrition, which enhances their chances of absorbing dangerous lead levels, Phillips said.

“Lead stays in the bones and is released very slowly” into the blood system, she said. Poor nutrition can produce anemia, or low iron levels in blood. “That makes it worse because lead is more easily absorbed.”

Most children are tested for lead before their first birthday. Tests are required as they begin school, usually by age 6.

Phillips said the county health department operates a lead awareness program. When a child tests at a designated high level, department staff conduct an “intervention,” a home visit in which the source of the lead is sought and a diet is recommended to help lower the child’s lead level and increase his or her immune system.

“I think people are becoming more aware of the dangers of lead poisoning,” she said. “There are lead testing kits in hardware stores” that are purchased in high amounts.

Owners of older homes should be alert for chipping paint, both inside and out, and the dust it produces. Hard floors and window sills should be regularly cleaned with wet mops and cloths. Old paint that could contain lead should be covered with a fresh coat, Phillips said.

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