“Flint is the situation that woke us up—poking the sleeping giant.”
Paul Haan, Executive Director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of Grand Rapids came to the G-RAP meeting on June 16 to tell us about the giant that’s been sleeping across Michigan: lead poisoning of our children.
It’s been sleeping across Grand Rapids.
This chart shows the number of children in that area who tested with too-high blood lead levels, what percentage of kids tested were found to exceed the CDC level, and where that area ranks in the state.
The 49507 zipcode has a child lead poisoning rate higher than that of Flint, but due to different environmental reasons.
Haan did not share these numbers to belittle what is happening in Flint: “Flint is a tragedy. It is unjust and wrong. Those folks need our everything we can throw at the problem.” But Grand Rapids is in some serious trouble, and our number of lead poisoned kids is on the rise.
In Grand Rapids, and many other areas of the state, the lead that is poisoning infants and young children comes from houses that were painted with lead paint prior to 1978, and from the soil around those homes and around factories that used lead paint and/or left a lot of lead particulates from leaded gasoline that have now leached into the soil. This lead exposure comes mainly through the air—through dust generated by home renovations, unsafe painting jobs, and paint left to weather and chip by landlords and homeowners.
Rev. Nate Moody expressed concern about many of their older churches that most likely have lead paint, but Haan reassured him that the time of exposure in a church is so much shorter than time spent in the home, that it wouldn’t be a major contributing factor. However, if there were a day care in an older church, “you can run into problems and a need for remediation.”
Healthy Homes has been working on the Get the Lead Out campaign for many years. Haan remembers a house they’d been called to by the landlord for a pest issue, but they noticed that there was painting being done, and done unsafely. They suggested to the mother of the family that rented that place that she get her then-10-month-old daughter, Nyicear, tested for lead, two months earlier than the recommended age for first testing: her lead levels were ten times today’s standard: 50(ug/dL). Nyicear was rushed from her doctor’s office to DeVos Children’s Hospital, where she stayed for over a week to get her levels down to a better level. Still, it was three years before the lead in her blood neared 5(ug/dL). Her mother, Randi Challender, worked with Habitat for Humanity to become a homeowner so she could provide a safer home environment for her family.
High lead levels have affected members of the G-RAP community, with Rev. Kate Kooyman’s son testing at 4(ug/dL) after a company did not work as safely on her home as they’d promised: “Nobody had told me about this, so I didn’t know until we had this problem. After that we could make a better decision about where not to do daycare.”
Rev. Robert Dean had a family in his congregation severely affected during the time he was 3rd Ward City Commissioner, ten years ago: “I had two young men in my church with lead poisoning. Trying to help these families go through the system to get help for these young men was terrible. I’ve seen the impact it’s had on their learning.”
When one pastor asked about the symptoms of a lead-poisoned child, Haan gave a rueful smile: “Lethargy. Stomachache. These are things kids show anyway, that’s why the blood test is so important.”
So far, the organization has fixed close to 1,500 homes in Grand Rapids. Haan says, “That sounds like a lot, but compared to the magnitude of the problem, it’s just getting started.” The magnitude is this:
So what can pastors do?
Haan suggests the following:
Haan’s final words to G-RAP were stark: “Let’s stop using these kids as canaries in the coal mine.”
Thank you to Pastor Tim Harris of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church for hosting us this month.
G-RAP is on a summer break. We’ll resume meetings in September with a focus on issues of education and equity in Grand Rapids. If you would like to be on the Advisory Committee for Education when it forms, let us know.