During a public hearing on Feb. 21, the City Commission – City of Grand Rapids discussed new rules for making rental properties safer for children at risk for lead poisoning. The proposed rules would require landlords to test their properties for lead dust when they renew the city certificate that allows them to rent out the property. Public comment for and against the proposed safeguards was about equally divided between those advocating for children’s health and owners of rental properties concerned about costs.
“The research overwhelmingly tells us that lead dust is the primary source of exposure for kids. So, if it is identified within a dwelling unit, cleaning it up is a really important thing to do,” says City of Grand Rapids Lead Programs Specialist Paul Haan. “Requiring landlords to test for that lead dust when renewing their city certificate will help protect more kids from lead poisoning.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that there is no safe blood lead level in children — even low levels of lead can permanently damage the brain and nervous system. Lead poisoning decreases intelligence, ability to pay attention and academic performance as well as cause behavior problems and hearing and speech impairment. Performed by contracted, state-certified professionals, the lead dust test is fairly cheap compared to these lifelong costs of lead poisoning, ranging from $118 to $229.
“This test has been around for probably 25 or more years. It is the gold standard against which all things are measured and highly researched,” Haan says. “We are staying consistent with the science. This is not some little creative test some entrepreneur came up with and wants to sell a lot of.”
The rationale for testing at each certificate renewal is that renovations between tenants can result in lead dust being released into the home or apartment, especially if lead-safe building practices are not followed. If lead dust is detected, the remedy is not high cost either. The home or apartment will simply require a very thorough cleaning.
“It is going to be really hard to clean up if they don't use those safe work practices. That's one of the things we know about lead. If you work in dangerous ways, you can really make it difficult to clean up,” Haan says. “The principal thing is to get the lead out of the environment, so the child is safe immediately.”
While community organizations like Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan and the city itself have worked hard to reduce incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Grand Rapids, recent data shows a 40% increase in lead poisoned children over the past two years in the 49507 ZIP code. Lead poisoning is also rising in ZIP codes 49504 and 49503. In fact, Grand Rapids has far higher rates of lead poisoned children than the state as a whole — rates comparable to many neighborhoods in Flint and Detroit.
The City of Grand Rapids addresses childhood lead poisoning through its Lead Hazard Control program that offers owners of owner-occupied homes or one- to four-unit rental properties up to $20,000 in assistance to remove lead hazards. In addition, the Lead Free Kids GR committee reviews, assesses and provides guidance on city housing and lead remediation procedures, plans and programs.
Haan was hired in 2022 to support the city’s strategic plan, community development and code compliance outcomes in order to reduce childhood lead poisoning. The proposed additional rules for lead dust testing are one more way that the City of Grand Rapids is addressing these concerns.
“The majority of housing would pass this kind of a screening, the overwhelming majority,” Haan says. “Some won’t and that's where we want to be paying attention to keep kiddos safe.”Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids