Lead Poisoning Rate Rises for Second Year in a Row in Kent County


After a decade of decline, the number of lead-poisoned children in Kent County has risen for the second year in a row. Recent data released by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) shows a 40 percent increase in lead-poisoned children in the 49507 zip code during the past two years.

According to the data, 617 Kent County children had elevated blood-lead levels in 2016 – the most recent year for which data is available.

Grand Rapids’ 49507 zip code leads the state in numbers of lead-poisoned children. Lead poisoning has also increased in zip codes 49504 and 49503 since 2014. Two out of every three lead poisoned-children in Kent County live in zip codes 49507, 49504 or 49503. These are high-poverty, high-minority neighborhoods in Grand Rapids.

African-American children were lead-poisoned at twice the rate of white children in Grand Rapids in 2015, according to MDHHS data.

The lead poisoning is causing serious health problems, including permanent brain damage.

“Many people are unaware that lead exposure from dust in the house and soil in the yard is the culprit,” said Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan and gubernatorial appointee to the state of Michigan’s Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission.

It should be noted that lead in the water is not the culprit here: The City of Grand Rapids water testing under the federal Lead and Copper Rule demonstrates that Grand Rapids has been in compliance since 2001. The amount of lead in Grand Rapids water is far below federal thresholds and is among the safest in the state.

Lead lurks in the interior and exterior paint of homes built before 1978 – the year lead-based paint was banned – and most houses in the city of Grand Rapids were built before that year. Paint flakes and peels, and when improperly scraped or sanded off, dangerous lead dust can be kicked up. That flaking, peeling lead paint and dust – ingested or breathed in – can be dangerous to anyone. But lead is especially toxic to babies, children and pregnant women.

It doesn’t take much lead to create a toxic situation. One gram of lead dust is enough to make 25,000 square feet of flooring hazardous for young children, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US-EPA) regulations.

“We’re talking an amount as small as the equivalent of a packet of Sweet’N Low – just that small amount is enough to contaminate the floors of a dozen homes in Grand Rapids,” said Haan.

Like many communities nationwide, the number of children lead poisoned in Grand Rapids dropped precipitously in the 1990s and early 2000s. More recently, the improvement began to tail off until 2015 when Grand Rapids actually experienced a shocking uptick in the number of lead-poisoned children.  

Resources are currently available to help parents protect their children from potential exposure. Last fall, Grand Rapids was awarded $2.9 million in HUD funding to fix homes with lead-based paint hazards. Typical “fixes” include new windows and exterior painting or siding. The HUD funding is available to eligible homeowners, landlords and tenants.  

The City of Grand Rapids administers the funding locally. In September of this year, the City expanded program eligibility, making funding available to even more people.

Anyone who owns or rents a home in the city of Grand Rapids built before 1978 is encouraged to learn about funding eligibility. More information can be found at www.GetTheLeadOutGR.org.

Nationwide, contractors doing non-lead abatement activities in pre-1978 are now required to work lead safe. The federal Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP), enacted in 2010 and enforced by the US-EPA in Michigan, requires that all contractors working in pre-1978 be trained, certified and use lead-safe work practices. The number of certified contractors in Michigan has dropped off since the initial years of the program.

A recent report issued by the Trust for America’s Health and a number of large, national foundations stated that, “if the RRP were fully enforced, 211,000 children would be protected from lead poisoning in 2018 alone and the nation would reap $4.5 billion in future benefits or about $3.10 per dollar spent.” (The report can be downloaded from the press kit.)

“More labor must be trained and enforcement stepped up. Consumers need to know their rights to have their home repaired in a safe way.” said Haan.



Funding is available to Get the Lead Out!

Anyone who owns or rents a home in the city of Grand Rapids built before 1978 is encouraged to learn about funding eligibility. For more information, please call the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan at (616) 241-3300 or visit www.GetTheLeadOutGR.org. Or, contact the City of Grand Rapids Community Development Department at (616) 456-3030.