As more children are poisoned by lead in Grand Rapids, community advocates work for change

For the first time since the year 2000, the number of children poisoned by lead has increased in Grand Rapids. Now, nonprofits, elected officials and other community leaders are joining forces to put an end to a devastating health issue that disproportionately affects families of color.
For the first time since the year 2000, the number of children poisoned by lead has increased in Grand Rapids — a city where community leaders say thousands of young residents are at risk of being exposed to lead in aging housing units that can cause devastating health problems for families.

To combat lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development in children and, at very high levels, can be fatal, area nonprofit organizations, elected officials and other community advocates are joining forces to increase awareness and connect families facing lead in their homes with help. Last Thursday, March 10, community leaders gathered at a town hall meeting held at LINC UP, a nonprofit based in southeast Grand Rapids, to discuss the problem — and what can be done to put an end to the poisoning of the city's children.

“This involves the damaging of our babies and children in homes they’ve moved into with great joy,” Rev. David May, of Mount Moriah Baptist Church,  says at the town hall. “Lead is a significant issue in Grand Rapids. This is a problem that’s real, but solvable.”

Lead poisoning in Grand Rapids: Where is it happening and why?

The Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, which, along with the Grand Rapids Urban League, was one of the main sponsors of last week’s town hall, recently crunched numbers from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to gain insight into the prevalence of lead in Grand Rapids’ homes. Representatives from the organization report that 610 Kent County children between the ages of 0 and 5 years old tested positive in 2015 for elevated blood lead levels (at least five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that no safe blood lead level in children has been identified, and the Mayo Clinic notes that even a small amount of lead can lead to serious health problems.

“The greatest risk is to brain development, where irreversible damage may occur,” the Mayo Clinic writes. “Higher levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults. Very high lead levels may cause seizures, unconsciousness and possibly death.”

Of the 610 children between the ages of 0 and 5 who faced elevated lead blood levels, which represents 6.2 percent of the children tested for lead in the county, 465 of them were from Grand Rapids — meaning about three out of every four young children poisoned by lead in Kent County live in Grand Rapids. That number, 465, represents about 11 percent of the young children tested for lead poisoning in Grand Rapids — an increase over the 8.4 percent of children of the same age who tested positive for elevated lead levels the year before.

In all of Michigan, 5,053 children between the ages of 0 and 5 tested positive for lead in 2014.

“The brave folks in Flint have poked the sleeping giant of lead,” Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition, says. “In Flint, we know the water is a tremendous problem. In West Michigan, it is coming from the paint, the housing.”

Rev. David May and Paul Haan."Last year, for the first time since 2000, lead poisoning went up," Haan continues. "We had been bringing the numbers down significantly; now we're experiencing an uptick."

Leaders at the town hall stress that it is primarily the aging homes, not the water, that is the problem in Grand Rapids. According to the Healthy  Homes Coalition of West Michigan, there are about 65,000 housing units in Grand Rapids that were built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned in the United States. Of these, an estimated 40,000 units have a lead-based paint hazard — and about 36,000 of those units are occupied, the coalition reports. Children between the ages of 0 to 5 years old live in approximately 2,750 of those hazardous units, according to Healthy Homes.

“The greatest concern with lead happens in children under the age of two because of their rapidly developing brain,” says Dr. Ken Fawcett, of Spectrum Health.

“It’s not an acute event” that causes the poisoning, Fawcett explains. “Lead from paint breaks down to lead dust, which gets over everything in the house. Kids don’t have to eat paint chips to be intoxicated.”

Many of the homes where children poisoned by lead live are located in southeast Grand Rapids, with the 49507 zip code being ranked as having the second highest number of reported lead poisoning cases in the entire state in 2014, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The 49507 zip code is bordered by Franklin Street on the north, 28th Street on the south, Route 131 on the west, and Fuller and Sylvan Avenues on the east.

The three zip codes hit hardest by lead poisoning last year were 49507, 49503 and 49504.

In the 49507 area code, 186 children between the ages of 0 and 5 tested positive for elevated blood lead levels in 2015. In the 49503 area code, 97 children between the ages of 0 and 5 tested positive for elevated levels of lead last year. And in the 49504 area code, 95 children in the same age group faced elevated blood levels of lead in 2015.

“There is disparity — a lot of it links to neighborhoods,” Haan says in regards to the many families of color in Grand Rapids who are facing dangerously high levels of lead.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ same set of data from 2015, African American and Black families in Kent County were more likely to be affected by lead poisoning than other racial and ethnic groups: 222 African American/Black children between the ages of 0 and 5 had elevated blood lead levels, or 10.9 percent of African American/Black children tested for lead. There were 189 white children in the same age group who had elevated blood lead levels, representing 5.1 percent, and 87 Hispanic children faced the elevated blood lead levels, or 6.8 percent.

‘We need to figure out how to save our babies’

When Juanita Sanchez’s daughter, Alianna, was born about three and a half years ago, she did not know the danger her home posed to her family. The landlord of her apartment in Grand Rapids’ southeast side never once mentioned there was lead in her unit — even though the federal government requires property owners to disclose that there is lead-based paint prior to leasing to a tenant.

“I didn’t know what lead poisoning was until Alianna tested positive for it,” Sanchez says at last week’s town hall. “I was heartbroken to learn this was going to affect her in the long run.”

Once she confronted her landlord about the high levels of lead in her apartment, he told her “it wasn’t his problem,” and she and her family have now had to move out of the unit and stay in a motel because she doesn’t want Alianna to be further exposed. You can hear more of Sanchez's story here:
#LeadFreeGR Juanita Sanchez

Alianna has been diagnosed with lead poisoning...twice. We must learn from stories like hers and put an end to childhood lead poisoning now. Donate today at #LeadFreeGR

Posted by Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan on Thursday, February 25, 2016

Julia Jackson, a mother who also lives in southeast Grand Rapids, says exposure to lead — in a home her landlord claimed was safe — has caused serious developmental problems for her daughter.

“For her to be almost four years old, and she is not talking how she is supposed to,” Jackson says. “I actually want to cry right now.”

Similar stories are being repeated across Grand Rapids — homes aren’t being maintained, landlords are not alerting residents to lead in homes, and children are being poisoned.

“When I think of our little babies, it makes it hard to sleep knowing a child’s brain is being damaged while I slumber,” says Rev. May, who volunteers with the Healthy Homes Coalition. “... This is not OK. We need to figure out how to save our babies.”

How to eliminate lead: ‘Do you value the buck? Or do you value the baby’s brain?’

Landlords must step up and take responsibility for lead problems in their homes, town hall attendees stress. While community leaders note the cost to fix lead issues in a home can cost thousands of dollars, they point out it’s far more important to ensure the health of tenants — plus, if you’re looking at the bottom line, a landlord can be fined thousands of dollars should it be determined they did not address lead problems.

“You have to decide what you value,” Rev. May says. “Do you value the buck? Or do you value the baby’s brain? For me, that is an easy choice.”

John Smith, an attorney with Legal Aid of Western Michigan, stresses landlords can be sued if tenants are able to prove their health, or that of a family member, was negatively impacted while staying in their house. In other words, fixing the lead problems isn’t only the moral thing to do, it’s the financially responsible one as well.

“It’s going to cost way less to fix this than to save lives,” Kent County Commissioner Dave Bulkowski says at the town hall.

There are a number of opportunities for Kent County homeowners to access financial help when looking to make their homes safe from lead.  Both Grand Rapids and Wyoming can help homeowners using federal Community Development Block Grant funds, and Kent County Community Development can aid homeowners in Kentwood and other areas. Additionally, the state’s Lead Safe Home Program can also provide help for homeowners. For more information about accessing aid, please go here.

Connie Bohatch, of the city of Grand Rapids, says homeowners who meet the requirements for the Housing Rehabilitation Program (the program that uses the federal CDBG funds) may be eligible for home repairs that range between $1,000 and $24,000. She also notes the city maintains a lead safe housing registry, which can be found here.

For families who want to get their child tested for lead poisoning, they can do so throughout the city and county, Joan Dyer, of the Kent County Health Department, says. To make an appointment for lead testing, contact the Health Department at 616-632-7200. Other testing sites include primary care provider and Head Start locations.

What residents can do to help

Even if you yourself are not dealing with a home with lead, there’s plenty Grand Rapidians can do to help their neighbors. The Healthy Homes Coalition provided the following information:
  • Help the Healthy Homes Coalition with neighborhood canvassing: Help inform parents in the 49507 area code about what they can do to keep their children safe, how to get tested, resources to help fix homes, and more. The HHC’s first canvas will be held Saturday, March 26. Training will begin at 9am and the canvas will go from 10am-12pm.
  • Volunteer to be a peer educator and help parents connect with information about lead hazards. The Healthy Homes Coalition will train volunteers to work one-on-one with parents. Call 616-241-3300 or email [email protected] for more information.
  • Join the Jericho March: Mount Moriah Baptist Church will hold a Jericho March this spring to raise awareness of lead poisoning in Grand Rapids. Details are yet to come. To find out more, contact the Healthy Homes Coalition.
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