Harriet Okatch, Franklin & Marshall College – Lead Poisoning

On Franklin & Marshall Week: Lead poisoning remains a scourge in certain areas.

Harriet Okatch, assistant professor of biology and public health, looks into curbing this health hazard.

Professor Okatch holds a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Botswana, and a masters in public health from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research work focuses on understanding factors that promote lead poisoning, identifying geographic- and culturally- specific lead exposures, and designing lead poisoning prevention interventions. Her other research centers on the question “What factors affect medication adherence in HIV patients?”

Lead Poisoning


Lead poisoning rates among children under age six in Lancaster, Pennsylvania are among the highest in the state. Several factors contribute to this rate including that 95 percent of the homes in the city were built before 1978, the year lead based paint was banned.

Together with six students, we conducted interviews with professionals employed in the health, social welfare and education sectors.  All who interacted with families, or were in positions to influence policies and programs aimed at reducing lead poisoning.  The goal of these interviews was to get a deep and rich perspective of factors leading to lead poisoning.

Through these interviews we learned that three primary factors contributed to high rates: first, knowledge about lead and lead poisoning is very limited.  To address this we suggest a development of educational material that improve awareness of lead poisoning and the associated effects. The material should consider literacy levels, spoken languages, and modes of dissemination.

Second, families who lived in rental housing were more likely at risk of lead poisoning. While it is challenging to change home ownership status, the city government through the use of policy can protect renters. In fact, the city recently enacted an ordinance that requires landlords to make homes lead-safe before renting to families with children.

Finally, economic hardships and work commitments compete for time that would be dedicated to prevention. Therefore offering multiple prevention services at a single site can make efforts more efficient and visible, thereby encouraging families to take pro-active approaches.

A combination of educational and behavioral interventions, policy enactment and programmatic changes are likely to have a significant impact on the rates of lead poisoning in communities.


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