Do Good: 'Get the Lead Out!' helps homeowners make older homes safe for kids

When I was a little kid, my family lived on the upper floor of a very old, two-family house in Milwaukee’s inner city. Their plan was to renovate the house and then sell it. My first memory is of peeling ceiling paint right above my crib. At night, the peels metamorphosed into monsters, and I couldn’t sleep. Though my parents insisted there were no monsters on my ceiling—and quickly fixed the problem—it turns out that my fear of peeling paint was well founded. What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t know until much, much later, is that the peeling lead-based paint really was—and is—a monster. It’s a killer, a destroyer of lives.
Lead poisoning interferes with brain development, causes life-long brain damage, and poor physical growth and development. It contributes to social, behavioral and school problems, and learning disabilities; and can even cause death. As Grand Rapids continues to restore its historic neighborhoods, 'Get the Lead Out!' is raising awareness of the dangers associated with lead-based paint chips and dust.
Parents in the ’60s and ’70s warned their kids to not eat lead-based paint chips, and here’s why: Lead poisoning interferes with brain development, causes life-long brain damage, and poor physical growth and development. It contributes to social, behavioral and school problems, and learning disabilities; and can even cause death. The risk from lead poisoning is greatest in children one and two years of age, and children continue to be at high risk through age five.

Anyone can be poisoned by lead, but the risk is greatest for children because of the impact on brain development. Some studies link childhood lead poisoning to a future life of crime because children with lead poisoning have difficulty controlling their impulses. Source.

But it’s not just ingested paint chips that can be deadly; it’s also the practically invisible chip dust, which can be stirred up during a renovation project and land on the floor and even on some of your child’s toys. Kids crawl and play on the floor and put their hands in their mouths. Even opening and shutting windows with lead-painted frames can shed lead dust.

“While we’re having a good time revitalizing our neighborhoods, we are moving kids into older housing and lead comes with the territory,” says Paul Haan, executive director for the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. “We need to be vigilant.”

Incredibly, it takes only one gram of lead dust to turn 25,000 square feet of flooring into a danger zone. “A packet of Sweet’N Low for your coffee is one gram. That amount is enough to contaminate a dozen homes in Grand Rapids,” says Haan.

The Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, along with the City of Grand Rapids, Kent County Health Department, and the Rental Property Owners Association, is involved in a public awareness campaign called ‘Get the Lead Out’. The collaboration began in 2004 in response to very high childhood lead poisoning levels in specific neighborhoods in Grand Rapids.

In 2013, ZIP code 49507—which includes the Garfield Park and Alger Heights neighborhoods—had the highest number of children with lead poisoning in the state, according to a Michigan Department of Community Health report. The number of children in Kent County with lead poisoning in 2012 was one and a half times the national rate, according to the Kent County Health Department.

A recent University of Michigan study estimated the economic cost of lead poisoning in Michigan to be $300 million annually. Source.

Medical treatment, special education, juvenile and adult justice, and lifetime lost earnings contribute to the high cost of lead poisoning. Investment in lead abatement now, though expensive, will pay for itself in just a few years.

Although environmental and public health policies, such as banning leaded gasoline and lead paint in the 1970s, have greatly reduced children’s exposure to lead, historic sources of contamination still exist. Homes built before 1978—more than 85 percent of housing in Grand Rapids—are more likely to have lead-based paint. With young families moving into older neighborhoods to renovate their first homes, the danger of lead poisoning is very real.

Four out of every five children lead poisoned in Grand Rapids are between the ages of one and two years. Children should be tested for lead at 12 and 24 months, according to Michigan Department of Community Health screening guidelines. Parents outside of Grand Rapids who live in pre-1978 housing should also have their children tested at those ages.

Since its inception, Get the Lead Out! has made more than 1,350 homes in Grand Rapids lead-safe. Special funding to remove childhood lead poisoning hazards is available to qualified homeowners and landlords. Abating lead in contaminated homes (often by repairing or replacing window- and door-frames, and siding or encapsulating/enclosing areas of chipped paint) greatly reduces children’s exposure to lead and the negative health effects associated with lead poisoning.

In addition to helping kids and families, another benefit of this program is that it helps the local economy. “This program pays a lot of local contractors and inspectors. Plus, the improvements to the home can help with property values,” Haan says.

Homeowners living with children age five or younger in homes with lead-based paint are eligible for zero-percent interest “matching” loans of up to $12,000. To qualify for the grant, annual household income for a family of four must be below $50,500.

Qualified rental property owners are also eligible for grants up to $10,000 for the first unit and $4,000 for additional units in the same building.

To date, more than $16.1 million in funding has been provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to make homes lead safe in Grand Rapids. Current funding lasts through May 2015, and program officials say that applications should be submitted by December 1 before funding runs out. Project partners anticipate applying for additional funding in 2015, but the process is competitive and local funding is not guaranteed.

“When we fix the home before a child is poisoned, we not only save money, but we also protect children from undue harm,” says Haan. “We need to ask ourselves: Where would we rather spend the money? Fixing houses, or treating children in hospitals and paying for corrections?”

Get Involved:

For more info, click here or call 616.456.3030.

Learn how lead poisoning is linked to crime.

Get your child tested for lead. Click here to learn more.

Applications for the program are available at the following locations:

- City Hall, 300 Monroe Ave NW, 4th Floor
- Kent County Health Department, 700 Fuller Ave NE
- Healthy Homes Coalition, 742 Franklin St SE
- Most Grand Rapids neighborhood associations
- Online.

Remember: The deadline for submitting applications is December 1.

Photography by Adam Bird.

Signup for Email Alerts