Getting the Lead Out

Published On 09/19/2017

Children living in Flint, Mich., drank lead-contaminated water long before things reached emergency levels in 2014.

And today, in Memphis, Tenn., children are still consuming lead.

The water crisis in Flint recast light on a devastating, century-old health problem with irreversible effects. In the last few years, leaders across the country have renewed efforts to combat this complex issue, and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital is helping bring about local changes to protect children from lead poisoning.

Eighteen months ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a lead prevention pilot program in Shelby County. Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital came to the table as an original stakeholder and primary health partner. The 15-member stakeholder team comprised health care, housing, legal services and early education leaders.

“A system change is what we’re after,” said Cathy Marcinko, a grant development coordinator at Le Bonheur who is working with coalition partners on prevention strategies and alignment of healthy homes services.

Often, families living in sub-standard housing face health risks, from lead poisoning to asthma triggered by mold or pest infestation. In Shelby County, 15,000 to 20,000 children are screened annually for lead poisoning. Around 225 test positive, each year.

Leadgraphic

An analysis of the housing stock in Memphis has found 208,556 homes built prior to 1978 with potential lead hazards, according to the Shelby County Department of Housing.

Contaminated soil around vacant or recently demolished buildings and old lead water pipes in homes are also cause for concern. Research in Shelby County has also shown lead poisoning cases in wealthier inner-city neighborhoods and the suburbs, where renovation projects not following EPA rules culminate in exposure.

The local pilot prevention efforts resulted in the Shelby County’s permitting office adding a notice on all renovation permits informing contractors of the requirement to have Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) training certification.

In terms of on-the ground enforcement and prevention, there is more work to be done.

House exterior

“Memphis is by leaps and bounds producing the most lead poisoned children in the state,” said Betsy Shockley, manager of the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department’s childhood lead poising prevention and healthy homes program. “We need a strong plea from the community for effective housing legislation. We need families to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore.’”

Other partners with Le Bonheur in this effort include the University of Memphis Law School, the Health Department, Shelby County Housing, Memphis Area Legal Services and City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. Recently, Memphis was designated as a Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) site, which will bring additional technical resources and funding for the program.

Many current housing programs only address a single problem like lead in the home while leaving other problems unresolved. Le Bonheur’s plan to measure success hinges on the number of housing organizations that adopt and implement a comprehensive assessment and become part of a comprehensive network. Through that strategy, Marcinko said she hopes to show a reduction in lead poisoning and asthma hospitalizations—as well as other housing environmental issues affecting children and adults.

“Le Bonheur is unique in its role as a children’s hospital and a vital component of the fabric of the Memphis community,” said EPA Spokesman Jason McDonald. “Their value from opening their doors to this partnership is immeasurable.”

Ingested lead causes irreversible damage.

  • In the United States, there are an estimated 535,000 lead poisoned children (referring to those with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter), aged 1-5, costing approximately $43.4 billion in medical care, special education and lost earnings.
  • The CDC is working to lower the “actionable” level to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, though experts agree that there is no “safe” level for lead.
  • The effects include learning and reading disabilities, loss of IQ, hearing loss, attention deficit disorder, speech delays and behavioral disorders.
  • Lead is particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and young children.
  • Children with lead poisoning are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system.