Allocated funds will allow for greater detection of early childhood lead levels

Lead poisoning is a prevalent issue affecting many of Michigan’s youngest residents. There is no safe level of lead in the blood for children, as even in low levels it can cause damage to the nervous system and the brain. In 2021 the CDC lowered its blood lead reference value (BLRV) from 5 ug/dL to 3.5 ug/dL. That change more than doubled the amount of children in the US considered to have lead poisoning from 200,000 to 500,000. In 2022 it was estimated that 1 in 3 children globally have blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dl. Most homes built before 1978 contain lead as they were built before lead based paints were banned. With many homes in Michigan being older, this puts children and their development at risk.

Children with lead poisoning can experience developmental delays and learning difficulties, among other symptoms.

However, in Kent County, work is being done to protect families from lead poisoning. Earlier this year, rules were proposed that would require landlords to test their properties for lead dust when they renew the city certificate that allows them to rent out the property. Since then the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage has awarded nearly $500,000 to Kent County to expand efforts to keep children and families safe from lead poisoning.
“We examined areas where there was not already local funding in place in order to have an impact. Programs dedicated to identifying lead issues early were one of the areas that we saw an opportunity to create positive change and are within our annual process. Agencies that focus on early lead identification have the opportunity to apply for aid,” says Heather Boswell, vice president of First Steps Kent.
The funds from the Ready by Five millage will go towards the creation of three new positions within the Kent County Health Department — two public health educators and one new sanitarian. The positions will go toward greater detection of lead in homes and risk assessment. The additional sanitarian will support an estimated 25% increase in the number of referrals the county receives for risk assessments and lead investigations and will help provide greater support to areas outside of the center of Grand Rapids. The two health educators will work with groups in the community to create and implement a countywide health education strategy to reduce exposure to lead. 
“These new positions will allow for increased reach across the county, and we are anticipating seeing many more families from many more communities looking to have their homes tested. The two new public health educators and the new sanitarian will help meet that need to have the capacity to reach and engage families from different communities in Kent County,” says Boswell.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently proposed a plan that would require lead blood level testing in young children. Michigan Senate Bill 31 was signed into law last month. It ensures that all children at 12 and 24 months are tested for lead poisoning, allowing for an opt-out for parents.
“For many years, the only children that were getting tested for lead were children who were receiving Medicaid health benefits. Now, with this new bill, all who provide children's health insurance are required to make sure kids are getting tested. We're going to see many more kids with elevated levels due to increased testing. These dollars will make sure that we were able to respond to what is going to look like a huge jump,” says Boswell.
The new funding will join the work already being done in Kent County by organizations such as the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, which does grassroots work, going into communities and educating families on where lead might be and how to mitigate risk to their little ones. The city of Grand Rapids works to eliminate the prevalence of childhood lead poisoning through the Lead Hazard Control program that awards homeowners up to $20,000 to eliminate lead from a home. Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage will allow for greater detection of lead in homes. The Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan  works to educate families. The city of Grand Rapids works to eliminate the problem. Together these three organizations make it possible to alleviate the issue of early childhood lead poisoning in Kent County.
For those whose homes were built before 1978, it is important to have paint tested for lead. Small children, especially those crawling, could easily come into contact with paint flakes and ingest the lead. For details, visit Access Kent.
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