Saturnism: in Charente, the worrying return of a forgotten disease

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A disease, remembers Lisbeth Spanjers, director of the Hérisson social center, until now “reportedly missing” In France. Until a case emerged among travelers in the Charente. We are in 2015. A detection that sounds like an electric shock to these social actors who want to understand in order to better protect them. From there it is the story of plowing the ground to investigate, explain and convince. A screening campaign (2) is being conducted by the ARS from 2017 to 2019 to describe “Lead exposure of children in this population”.

A slow poisoning

During this period, one hundred children, aged from 24 months to 17 years, are tested. And “ Wow, when we saw the result, we said to ourselves: ‘There’s something’”, says Lisbeth Spanjers, director of social center Le Hérisson. Forty of them have a blood lead level greater than or equal to 50 µg/l, a threshold value “defining lead poisoning”. Thirteen even have a blood lead level of more than 100 µg/l. Short, “the degree of impregnation was much higher than that of the general population”says Ascension Garcia Robles, director of the Les Alliers social center.

What specifically exposes travelers to guidance? Certainly lifestyle habits. Like that one “make no distinction between living space and activities involving scrap metal, for example”, says Frédéric Coudret, manager of the social center Le Hérisson. Or “ to hold young children in his arms while he fails to take off his overalls”.

For what? Because this metal can slowly poison wherever it is. “Among hunters, fishermen or even through the old paintings of certain dilapidated houses”, recalls Jean-Luc Lassoudière. In this last case “Young children, those who put everything they touch in their mouths, are particularly exposed”underlines Lisbeth Spanjers.

The risk that no distinction is made between living space and activities around the reinforcement.

The Charente actors have turned this afterglow into an excellent reason to take action. By encouraging screening: of the 750 identified, only 48 traveling families participated, which is already a lot for those involved. And trusting “on the bond of trust that connects us with our audience”. Sometimes difficult to convince. Sonia Patrac confides bluntly: “I’ve never had a breast exam or anything in my life, for nothing”. To estimate “that it was of no use.” “And when I saw what it could do to our children and our future”… The sixty-year-old then changed his mind.

Raising awareness among health professionals

In this data collection, the social mediators were supported by the regional health service (ARS), which helped endorse the approach. “This topic of lead poisoning has been likely for years”, indicates Jean-Luc Lassoudière, and these types of actions have been carried out with travelers in Lyon and Pau. On the other hand, he emphasizes that “ Lead poisoning in children does not only affect travelers ». It can have an influence “the population as a whole”.

For Jean-Luc Lassoudière, this participatory work is also a goal “Getting people talking in the caravans”. Because by adopting good reflexes you can see reduced lead levels in the body. A life-saving awareness that these social mediators would now like to see extended to the entire population, but also to healthcare workers.

(1) Activities at risk of lead exposure and lead poisoning among children of Traveler families in Charente, 2017-2019.

(2) In collaboration with associations and the National Federation of Solidarity Societies for Action with Gypsies and Travelers (FNASAT-GDV), from March 2017 to December 2019.

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