Why Lead Poisoning?
One of the pillars of Healthy Homes Coalition’s outreach is to decrease lead exposure and poisoning in children. Lead poisoning can slow down growth and development, cause hearing and speech difficulties, lower IQ, cause reduction of lifetime earnings and even cause higher rates of incarceration. Most lead poisoning in Kent County results from lead paint hazards, so preventing lead poisoning requires removing those risks.
In 1978, lead paint was banned in new homes, but older homes had lead paint that began deteriorating. Healthy Homes’ Get the Lead Out Coordinator, Jackie Hernandez says, “lead was not something we ever talked about in my family. We didn’t know that it could be in the soil or paint.” Her home was in a neighborhood she would later learn was highly impacted by lead poisoning.
Flint vs Grand Rapids
Many Americans were shocked to learn of the Flint water crisis, a man-made public health crisis, beginning April 2014, involving the municipal water supply system of Flint, Michigan. Tens of thousands of Flint residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their tap water. With the heartbreaking realities of Flint’s crumbling infrastructure, the conversation about lead opened in the public once again. While Flint got attention in the media, one zip code in Grand Rapids silently led the state for the highest number of lead-poisoned children: 49507. In 2014, Flint had 122 children lead poisoned while 49507 had 145 children lead poisoned. In 2015, 3.3% of children tested in Flint had lead poisoning, while 14% of children in 49507 had lead poisoning (according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.)
At the time of this testing, a number above 4.5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) was considered an elevated blood lead level, or EBLL. Just this year in Michigan, that number was lowered. A blood lead level of 3.5 (µg/dL) or higher is considered elevated. Hernandez explains that while this is progress, “any number above zero is unsafe.” If any child tested for lead gets a blood lead level above 0, it’s reason to take action to reduce lead hazards in the home.
It’s in the Paint
Hernandez explains, “the only positive thing that came about from the Flint water crisis is that it began more conversations about lead and people started to become more aware of the issue. On the flip side, it caused a lot of misinformation, causing people to think the primary source, or only source, of lead was in the water. In Kent County, about 90% of all childhood lead poisoning cases result from deteriorating lead-based paint and lead dust in older homes and bare soil around them.
Four out of five homes in Grand Rapids, and nearly three out of five homes in Kent County, were built before 1978, the year lead was banned from paint. In these older homes, the lead paint had been peeling off the old windows, siding, and doors and creating paint chips, lead dust, and contaminated soil. Black and Latino neighborhoods were hit hard by this environmental injustice. These groups have historically been withheld from obtaining resources that are needed to be healthy and are disproportionately exposed to a combination of health risks such as poverty, violence, poor neighborhood conditions, and environmental health hazards (APHA, Advancing Health Equity.) Recognizing these injustices, the community sought answers and action.
The Solutions are Working
As the number of children with lead poisoning kept climbing, the Kent County Lead Task Force was formed and the Get the Lead Out program (GTLO) was born. Families were given the resources to remove lead hazards like chipping lead paint on their windows and siding. Since the creation of the Get the Lead Out program, and other lead-elimination initiatives, the data has shown a significant decrease in the number of children with elevated blood levels. In 2010, 7.9% of children tested with an elevated blood lead level and by 2020, that number dropped to 2.8%. According to Access Kent, GTLO has made 1,724 housing units in Grand Rapids lead-safe and more than 150 people have been trained as lead abatement professionals.
There is still work to do. The safe amount of lead in a child’s body is zero. To achieve this, we advocate for universal testing, lead paint removal & correction, and continuing knowledge of the issue. You should ask for your child to be tested for lead every year, up to age 3, and yearly up to age 5 if lead hazards are present in home. “Sometimes you have to demand these tests,” Hernandez explains. “You know your child best, and you have to advocate for lead testing even if the pediatrician isn’t giving that recommendation.” While some pediatricians are starting to incorporate universal testing, there are still many health professionals who are unaware of the necessity to require lead testing.
Our goal is to create a space where education concerning lead prevention is no longer needed. We aim to ensure long-term policies are intact to reduce disparities and eliminate harmful hazards so that children have the best opportunity to grow in a home safe and healthy. You can also do your part by sharing the Healthy Homes Coalition home hazards screening tool to families with children 5 and under (link below) and talking about this very real threat. Spreading the word about the Get the Lead Out program could help a child exposed to lead poisoning right now.
Home Hazard Screening Tool Request Form: https://tinyurl.com/NidoEnroll
APHA, Creating the Healthiest Nation: Advancing Health Equity