MDHHS, Kent County campaign educate about the dangers of lead hazards


COURTESY \ Don’t Play Around

Olivia Fellows, Staff Reporter

Many in Michigan are no stranger to the risks of lead exposure, especially its effect on children. Elevated lead levels in the blood can cause problems with the brain, kidneys and bone marrow. Symptoms of high lead levels can include stomach pain, headaches, vomiting, confusion, muscle weakness, seizures, hair loss or low red blood cell count. These risks are especially dangerous in toddlers and young children.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ (MDHHS) latest grant initiative aims to raise awareness and help communities clean up potential and existing lead hazards. MDHHS gave out more than $6.5 million in grants to expand residential lead hazard control services to eligible households with a Medicaid-enrolled resident. The grant money was awarded to six different communities in the greater West Michigan area including Detroit, Grand Rapids and Battle Creek. 

The grant initiative had several overarching goals for the community recipients, including lead inspections, risk assessments and elevated blood lead investigations to determine the presence of lead hazards in an area, followed by permanent removal, enclosure of lead-based paint and lead dust hazards for eligible residencies, and removal or covering of soil lead hazards up to eligible residence property lines. The initiative also aims to help with outdated plumbing removals, temporary relocation of residents during lead reduction processes and building local capacity to safely and effectively reduce lead hazards in communities. 

Managing Communications Director for the City of Grand Rapids Amy Snow-Buckner said that raising awareness for lead poisoning and working on solutions for afflicted communities in Michigan is important in maintaining informed and healthy communities.

“The idea isn’t to scare parents, it’s to get their attention and educate them about the hidden dangers of lead,” Snow-Buckner said. “We want to cut through all the noise and inspire parents to take action.”

In addition to the state grant initiative, Grand Rapids, Kent County and Wells Design Studio have partnered in creating the “Don’t Play Around” initiative, which plays on the childhood game of hide-and-seek, as lead hides in places you might not expect and children are the most impacted by lead poisoning. Hidden sources of lead include dust, paint chips and soil that are often found in older homes built before 1978, when lead-based paint was outlawed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children under the age of 6 are especially at risk because their bodies are still developing and are growing so rapidly. Lead exposure can have lifelong health impacts on children including ADHD, delayed learning and a lower IQ. 

Managing director of community services for Kent County Connie Bohatch explained that many houses in Grand Rapids and Kent are decades old, and pose a threat to families in the area who are unaware of the exposure they may be facing daily. It is estimated that 80 percent of the homes in Grand Rapids and 60 percent of all homes in Kent County were built prior to 1978.

“We want to make sure Grand Rapids is a safe place for everyone to live, including our youngest residents,” Bohatch said. “These outreach efforts are intended to educate parents and others who care for children about lead risks and empower them to help keep their loved ones safe.” 

According to MDHHS, one zip code in Kent County, 49507, led the state for the highest number of lead-poisoned children in 2015, with even more cases than Flint. However, the lead problem in Kent County is not from water, but from paint. Lead paint on the outside of homes can drop dust onto the soil where children play. Renovations to a home may disturb lead paint that has been under layers of newer paint for years. 

The “Don’t Play Around” campaign’s website features a self-assessment tool that guides individuals through their own homes and asks specific questions about each room. At the end of that assessment, the person will get a list of suggested actions that is personalized to their situation. By taking the self-assessment on the website, the average person should gain a much greater understanding of the relative risk of their situation.

Marketing and Communications Manager for the Kent County Health Department Steve Kelso said that the campaign’s main goals are to help keep kids safe and educate the greater public about the benefits of getting tested for potentially dangerous levels of lead in the blood for both adults and children. 

“The campaign was tailored to grab the attention of parents to heighten awareness of the issue and give them the tools to assess their own situation and funnel them to resources that can help them take action to minimize the risk,” Kelso said. “There is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood, and young children tend to put their hands and other items into their mouths and if those items have been exposed to lead, so has the child.”