Government and Health Care

Federal and local money work to stop lead poisoning in city

March 20, 2015
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For the city of Grand Rapids, “getting the lead out” is more than an idiom with a figurative meaning. It is, to use another idiom, an economic line in the sand.

Lead is a poison that causes early childhood brain damage and can send kids on a mentally off-balance trajectory for the rest of their lives, costing the state millions of dollars in health care, special education, correctional facilities and lifetime earnings.

And Grand Rapids has a serious lead problem.

“Childhood lead poisoning causes brain damage, neurological problems, cognitive problems, attention problems, behavior problems. That is clearly manifested in the population that ends up going to our schools. It becomes very challenged,” said Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.

“Kids that are typically affected are 1 to 2 years of age. It’s getting to them at earlier ages as they’re going through rapid neurological growth.”

Haan, who’s been fighting for years to prevent lead poisoning in West Michigan, was a reviewer of the 2014 University of Michigan report, “The Economics Of Lead Exposure and Remediation in Michigan,” which found the yearly impact of lead poisoning in the state totals more than $330 million, about $145 million of which is “estimated to be passed along to the taxpayer.”

According to the report, which was prepared by U-M’s Risk Science Center and the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health, lead poisoning in Michigan leads to a health care cost of $18 million annually and an additional $2.5 million in special education.

Due to the neurological damage lead poisoning causes, it has also been linked to crime.

According to the report, about “10 percent of juvenile crimes in Michigan were connected to lead exposure, costing an estimated $32 million annually in incarceration alone for lead-associated juvenile crime,” and “applying established standards to adult crimes in Michigan, an estimated $73 million annually can be attributed to lead-associated crimes.”

But the highest financial cost of lead poisoning comes not from health care, special education or crime, but from decreased lifetime earnings: a whopping $206 million.

There’s no way around it, Haan said: Lead poisoning is costing Michigan financially and socially.

In 2013, about 551 Kent County children from birth to 5 years old had a lead blood level above the safety levels that had been established by the Centers for Disease Control, Haan reported in a Grand Rapids Business Journal column last year.

He said that number has now dropped by about 10 percent, and this past year, “it looks like we were below 480 kids, so it’s continuing to come down.”

But the battle is far from over, particularly in areas like Burton Heights and on Sheridan and Caulfield avenues, west of U.S. 131 between Franklin and Hall streets.

“Historically, (the Baxter neighborhood) has a lot of (lead remediation) jobs done in it because Baxter was the chart topper. The chart topper now is maybe closer down to Burton Heights and Grandville Avenue. The 49507 zip code in 2013 had the most number of kids with lead poisoning in the state of Michigan of any zip code,” he said.

“Now when we go to look at that zip code by percentage, it falls down on the list considerably — I think it’s number 10, 11 or 12 — because there’s a lot of families and reinvestment in 49507.”

In the urban core of Grand Rapids high levels of exposure to lead seems to be most prevalent in minority communities. There’s no doubt that, historically, lead poisoning has been an obstacle for minorities in this city, Haan said, but the fact that they’re living in houses that are literally poisoning them isn’t the only issue.

“I wouldn’t put it all on lead. There’s some larger injustices going on in terms of how we have segregated our communities, how we’ve concentrated poverty … but lead is a symptom of that larger problem,” he said. “It’s a symptom we know where we can invest in the house, and you’ve removed just one thing off that kid’s deck.”

Lead poisoning is one issue where federal and local dollars are working together to make a difference, Haan said.

In the last decade, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has funded 65 percent of lead remediation in the city of Grand Rapids, with a combined total of $23 million from HUD and matching funds.

Since 1995, Grand Rapids has received the second highest HUD lead hazard control funding of any other city in the state — second only to Detroit by a surprisingly small margin. Grand Rapids received $16,015,506, about 20.6 percent of the funding, and Detroit received $19,849,890, about 25.5 percent.

HUD’s current funding cycle ends May 31, although Haan is hopefully expecting the federal funding to continue.

“We’re putting the money on the ground and getting it done. HUD and the feds like the outcome because jobs get done,” he said. “We’ve got good, diligent contractors working on it and they do a good job.”

Haan also works with Get the Lead Out — a lead-hazard control program that has made about 1,368 homes in Grand Rapids lead-safe since 2004, reducing childhood lead poisoning in Grand Rapids by 84 percent in the last 10 years.  

The program, which is led by the city in collaboration with Haan’s organization and the Kent County Health Department and the Rental Property Owners Association, hires local contractors and inspectors to do remediation work to remove lead from homes.

“(HUD’s) federal funds have leveraged an additional $8,176,908 in local match funds. From that investment, $18,225,076 has gone to private-sector construction contracts for lead hazard remediation and related housing rehabilitation in the city,” according to Get the Lead Out.

“The average cost to treat lead hazards was $10,416 per housing unit. More than $500,000 was spent on lead paint inspection/risk assessments. During this time, an additional 102 units were made lead safe using other funds, for a total of 1,368 units addressed to date, with an additional 50 to be completed by June 2015.”

The big impact of all this money is on improving the future workforce: Haan said when children aren’t full of lead poisoning, they can achieve more behaviorally and educationally, producing a better labor force.

“(Employers understand) having a good population of kids going to school (is) going to boost the rental market because if you ask people why they may or may not want to live in Grand Rapids, oftentimes people will cite schools — particularly if they’re raising a family.

“And if we are changing the outcomes for these kids, (if) there’s less lead poisoning and there’s less disruption in the class, that’s the long-term payoff.”

Employers are attracted to communities that have a better workforce. So are investment dollars. The battle to get lead poisoning out of the city has had a ripple effect that’s floated a lot of HUD money into the community, Haan said.

A part of this has also been the support of the local government, particularly Mayor George Heartwell and City Hall, Haan said.

“They all get that we need to invest in safe housing for kids,” he said. “It’s nice to fix up houses and make them look pretty and increase the tax base, but we’re really fixing up houses to take care of the people who live there so our citizenry can thrive, and a big part of that is kids.”

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