Collaboration hopes to tackle childhood lead poisoning in Kent County

Healthy Homes has forged a new collaboration with the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) to reduce childhood lead poisoning in Kent County. Healthy Homes provides home screenings for lead contamination and helps train nurses, educators and community health workers who already visit families to identify environmental hazards. The KCHD works with families to identify lead and other environmental hazards in their homes. When the possibility of lead is detected, a sanitarian does an intensive investigation. When lead is found, the Health Department connects families to a contractor for lead remediation. Funding from the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage was used to increase the number of KCHD sanitarians from three to six.

“Parents can simply reach out to us, whether for tips and resources on how to do some controls in their home,” says Jameela Maun, executive director of Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. “Most of our resources are free or relatively free. We will come through the home and do an environmental screening and provide some services.”

In 2015, in the midst of the Flint Water Crisis, Grand Rapids ZIP code 49507 led the state for the highest number of lead-poisoned children. According to data collected in 2018, 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 no longer allowed in paint. In the 49507, lead paint may be the main source of lead contamination but not the only source. Lead from air pollution washed off from rooftops onto yards is another contributor. And in the distant past, the area was home to fruit orchards in a time when lead was used as a pesticide. So, the soil in many of the yards within 49507 contains lead, as well. Grand Rapids ZIP codes 49503 and 49504 also have high rates of childhood lead poisoning.  

“Lead poisoning hurts the brain and nervous system. Some of the impacts may never go away,” Maun says. “In the body, it can stunt growth and development. It can damage hearing and speech. It can make it hard for children to pay attention in school. We've seen in studies that even the lowest threshold of blood-lead levels impacts testing scores.

While work to educate families about lead poisoning and lead remediation in older homes has reduced the number of children with lead poisoning, 222 Kent County children under age six tested positive for elevated blood lead levels in 2019. Since testing for lead poisoning is neither required of or offered to all children, numbers could be higher. Most children living in lead-contaminated homes are never tested. To be safe, testing should begin during pregnancy and continue annually until a child enters kindergarten.

“The first thing we say to parents is, get your child tested, especially if they're living in a home built prior to 1978,” Maun says. “Currently in Michigan, there's not a universal mandate for all children to be tested.”

Children of color are more likely to suffer from lead poisoning. They tend to live in neighborhoods most impacted by lead contamination and their families live with the impacts that structural and institutional racism have had on economic opportunity, access to health care and availability of healthy foods in their neighborhoods — a diet rich in natural sources of iron, calcium and vitamin C, for example dark leafy greens, can help the body remediate lead poisoning.

Maun reiterates that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Symptoms of poisoning — developmental delays, learning difficulties and aggressive behavior — may not develop until a significant level of lead has built up in the body.

“Lead poisoning is preventable and is still taking place today,” Maun concludes. “We still have quite a bit of work to do. In our community, children are still being poisoned. We need all partners on board to solve this issue.”

Click here to watch a video from the Kent County Health Department about safely cleaning lead paint chips and dust.

Click here for more data about children with elevated blood lead levels in Michigan communities.

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.