The air young children breathe, the home where they spend most of their time, and the yard where they play, may all contain a danger that can damage developing brains: lead. Decades of work to educate the community about lead poisoning and safely remove lead-based paint from older homes has greatly reduced the number of children found to have lead in their blood, but the risk is still far from eliminated. In 2019 – the last year in which testing data wasn’t impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic – 695 Kent County children younger than age six tested positive for an elevated blood lead level.
“We stand by the belief that lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable,” shared Jameela Maun, Executive Director of Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. “Until children are not being poisoned, we’ll still have quite a bit of work to do.”
There is no safe level of lead exposure, and the symptoms of poisoning – including developmental delays, learning difficulties, and aggressive behavior – often don’t show up until there has been a significant buildup of lead in the body. Organizations across the community are collaborating and innovating to address the ongoing threat.
The Kent County Health Department works with families to identify lead and other environmental hazards. It begins with a visual assessment of the home. If a potential for lead is found, a sanitarian goes into the home to do a full, intensive investigation. From there, the health department connects families to a contractor for lead remediation. The health department has recently gone from three to six sanitarians, thanks to funding from the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage.
“That is double the houses that we can set eyes on and avoid a poisoning,” pointed out Andrew Salisbury, Lead Program Supervising Sanitarian with the health department. The lead investigation process is tedious and labor-intensive, taking up to 40 hours per home. Salisbury says progress has been slow but significant.
“One house at a time doesn’t feel like a lot, but we are trending in the right direction. Unfortunately, we are going to have lead in our environment forever, especially in the soil and particles in the air. We can repaint a house and replace siding, but the soil is really hard to remediate and fully clean up.”
Healthy Homes Coalition also provides families with screenings, another service that has expanded with Ready by Five funding. The organization is working with partners to assess more homes by training nurses, educators, community health workers, and other professionals who already visit families to use its screening tool to identify environmental hazards.
“We don’t want to duplicate the work, and we don’t want to add stress to the family by having multiple visitors coming into the home unnecessarily,” explained Hana Salmoran, Healthy Homes Operations Administrator. “This allows us to screen more homes and build on the trusted relationships families already have with service providers.”
Lead isn’t the only hazard identified in the assessments. Screeners are looking for mold and other asthma triggers such as dust, dander, and rodents, as well as problems that could cause accidental injuries, such as loose floorboards and unsafe stairwells. Depending on what is found during a screening, families may work with a Healthy Homes case manager, be connected to the Kent County Health Department’s lead investigation services, or get a warm handoff to other community resources and supports.
“Our Ready by Five program is the most all-encompassing program we have,” Maun explained. “That program is designed to look at the home holistically and identify all potential hazards and then be able to address them as the client is ready to work on them.”
Healthy Homes Coalition and the Kent County Health Department work together to serve as many families as possible, referring to each other depending on which organization is best suited to meet specific needs. Both have ramped up outreach efforts after two years of limited community exposure due to the pandemic. They want families to know they can request a free home screening.
Children in neighborhoods that are economically disadvantaged are more likely to live in homes with environmental hazards. Home ownership is lower, more families experience housing instability, and there are fewer resources to safely remediate and remodel homes. The 49507 zip code in parts of Grand Rapids and Wyoming – which is majority Black and Latinx and has a poverty rate double that of the metropolitan area – often has the highest percentage of young children testing positive for elevated blood lead levels in the state.
However, lead is a threat in every part of Kent County – the city of Grand Rapids, adjacent suburbs, outlying suburbs, and rural communities. Lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978, so any home built before then could be a danger. That includes nearly 70 percent of all housing in Kent County.
“We are urging universal testing to really see where all of it is and break down that idea that lead is only a city issue. It is all over the county,” Salisbury said.
Universal testing for lead in the blood is currently only required for children whose families participate in certain publicly funded health and nutrition programs. Most children living in homes that could have the remnants of lead-based paint are never tested. Many experts believe testing should begin with pregnant moms and continue annually until a child enters kindergarten.
Those who work in this area would also like to see more funding for lead remediation programs. There is currently more need than resources, with many families not eligible for government-funded programs but unable to pay a contractor themselves. A big part of their work is still education.
“Still to this day, even after all of the advocacy, people are not aware,” Salmoran said. “We need to keep spreading the word that lead poisoning is detrimental to our kids and that it is experienced every day by children in our community.”
Click on the link to watch a video from the Kent County Health Department about safely cleaning lead paint chips and dust.
Click on the link to watch a video from the Kent County Health Department about programs funding by Ready by Five.
Click on the link for data about children with elevated blood lead levels in Michigan communities.