City secures expertise of longtime crusader against childhood lead poisoning

Kent County is among eight Michigan counties with the highest rate of childhood lead poisoning in the state with numbers similar to Calhoun, Ingham, Jackson, Macomb, Muskegon, Oakland, St. Claire and Wayne counties. According to Paul Haan, the City of Grand Rapids Community Development Department's new lead programs specialist, children living in ZIP code 49507 have the highest incidence of lead poisoning, followed by those in ZIP code 49503 — both ZIP codes that encompass neighborhoods of color.

“Watching the data over the last many years, ZIP code 49507 continues to be a challenge with some of the higher levels in the state historically,” Haan says. “Generally, lead poisoning is found in the central city where there’s older housing.”

On the bright side, the incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Michigan has been steadily decreasing. Between 2003 and 2018, the percent of children testing positive for lead poisoning dropped from 20% to 2.9%. Haan plans on working to continue this downward trend in Grand Rapids, per the city’s strategic plan.

Paul Haan“I’ve really got to give kudos to the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan,” Haan says. “Cities are not public health entities. They are typically not the players in that space on this huge issue. But Grand Rapids said it wants to be and so it's actually watching the number of kids with high lead levels — and wanting to do what it can to drive that number down.”

Haan has been working to reduce childhood lead poisoning for more than 20 years, first as project manager with Get The Lead Out! and then as founding executive director of Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. He also serves on the state’s Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission, appointed by both Governor Snyder and Governor Whitmer. His new role with Grand Rapids will initially focus on lead-based paint hazards in residential rental properties. He will work for policy changes, stakeholder engagement and implementation of policies and programs both within the city and county-wide.

“It's up to all of us in the community to put childhood lead poisoning behind us,” Haan says. “It’s very challenging, but there are smaller and large things that many of us can do and we need to find a way to do those things.”

In general, lead exposure has many sources — water contaminated with industrial waste or delivered through lead pipes, air pollution, soil and lead-based paint, which was used for home interiors and exteriors through the 1980s.

“By far, the most prevalent way in which it's getting into our kids in Grand Rapids is soil and dust,” Haan says. “That's coming primarily from old lead-based paint and the burning of leaded gasoline. What happened is we burned so much of it in our cars before it was removed, that it vaporized in the air and settled out in our neighborhoods, fell on rooftops and fell around houses. Lead around the perimeter [of houses] can make that soil particularly challenging.”

Children with lead poisoning often experience neurological damage.

“You don't typically see outward symptoms. But what happens is brain drain across the population,” Haan says. “Kids that are exposed have more challenges, behavioral issues, attention issues, issues with performance on standardized testing and school learning. The decrement may not be huge, but if it's your child, you don’t want to see them being held back. Working to eliminate childhood lead poisoning is just really about helping kids succeed in life.”

If you suspect your child was exposed to lead or you’re looking for information about identifying lead in your home, these websites can help:

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids
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