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WMEAC: Working on lead exposure in Kent County in the wake of Flint crisis

• Jun 19, 2017 at 3:00 PM

In the wake of the years-long struggle between the residents of Flint and their city officials, lead poisoning — in service pipes, in soil and in the form of lead dust — has taken place as common phrase in the mouths of Michigan communities.

For members of Kent County, that hits particularly close to home, as a 2015 study from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services showed that a little more than 6 percent of the county’s children had elevated levels of lead in their blood; or 611 of the 9,784 children.

Lead poisoning is caused by a buildup of lead in the body, and it is particularly harmful for children (ages 0-5 most significantly, and 6-13 slightly less so). Symptoms include abdominal pain, developmental delays and changes in brain functioning. High levels of buildup can be fatal. Symptoms in adults range from cardiovascular effects and decreased kidney function to reproductive problems.

In a situation like Flint, lead poisoning was caused, in small portion, by the corrosion of lead service pipes that fed water to the homes of residents. Although lead service pipes are no longer installed as a way of transporting water to homes, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, there are still an estimated 6 million to 10 million homes that receive their water via lead pipes across the nation. In a city like Grand Rapids, there are an estimated 17,000 service water lines.

Currently, Grand Rapids utilizes corrosion control, a process to prevent the lead service lines from breaking down into the water, to stop lead from entering the water. This is nothing to scoff at — data from the City of Grands Rapids shows levels of lead in the water have consistently decreased for the past 20 years and are now at a record low.

Corrosion control is a Band-Aid, not a permanent fix — so the city and individual homeowners are slowly removing the lead service lines, just as the City of Lansing finished doing in 2016 after a 12-year process.

For context, Lansing removed about 12,000 lead service lines in that time. Flint has an estimated 29,000 lines — and though Grand Rapids lies closer to 12,000 than 29,000, removing the lines will be a long process.

This is important: While there are record lows of lead in Michigan water, according to the data last publicly released in 2015 by the state, the 49507 ZIP code still has the highest percentage of children with lead in their blood in the state — 14.4 percent.

So, if not from the water, where is the lead coming from?

An estimated 59.2 percent of homes built before 1978 indicates the problem is in the homes themselves, and particularly, in the paint. Per the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, more than 90 percent of all childhood lead poisoning cases in Grand Rapids are a result of lead paint that has deteriorated in older homes.

Organizations like the Healthy Homes Coalition are working to spread awareness about the risk of lead paint and lead dust and aid homeowners and parents.

Paul Haan, Healthy Homes Coalition’s executive director, says testing for lead in homes is difficult, particularly because of the cost.

“That’s pretty challenging, because it’s expensive,” he said. “So, in the ideal situation, money is no object, they would hire a trained certified professional to check the house for lead. The problem is that costs hundreds of dollars … but that would really be ideal. Then you would know every surface in the house that contains lead paint.”

Just as 2015 state data showed abnormally high rates in children with lead in their blood in Kent County, data showed that more than double the percentage of residents in the 49507 ZIP code were living below the poverty line versus the percentage statewide.

In situations made more common because of statistics like these, Haan suggests that families who cannot afford testing should assume the paint in their home is lead, and take precautions.

In a partnership with the Kent County Health Department, the City of Grand Rapids, the Rental Property Owners Association and Linc Up, the Healthy Homes Coalition has created “Get the Lead Out!” — a hazard control program that focuses its efforts on protecting kids from lead poisoning by solving hazards in older Grand Rapids homes. This program, and the state program, offer financial assistance to families who are eligible.

“Some families can’t access those problems,” Haan said, “so we talk to them about, not that it’s their fault, but what are their cleaning interventions you can use that really reduce the risk.”

Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder established the Child Lead Poisoning Elimination board, of which Haan was a member. As of last month, that board is now a permanent commission, focused on communicating with all those in government and those with stake on programs and policies related to eliminating child exposure to lead.

According to Haan, the commission will meet next week to focus on strategic planning, and will begin hearings sometime in August until early fall in four Michigan areas.

“They’ll want to hear from the public, parents, anybody in the public,” Haan said. “Along with those they may reach out to, for example, to landlords and realty and property investors, reach out to specifically the health care providers, doctors, nurses, clinics. So those will be especially organized hearings from those constituencies, people that are likely to be allies or even opponents may have concerns about this.”

— By Tessa Harvey, the ecojournalism intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).

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