When Grand Rapids resident LyRee Adams’ young daughter tested positive for lead a decade ago, she later learned the poisoning likely occurred from lead-based paint flaking from windows in the home she was renting. She immediately got appropriate medical care for her daughter before the child was permanently harmed – and Adams also went directly to her landlord and worked with him to get the lead hazard out of the home.
Today, her daughter is a thriving 12-year-old at City Middle School in Grand Rapids. And Adams has already had her 2-year-old son tested for lead – no detectable lead was found.
Not all parents and children in Kent County – and particularly in key Grand Rapids neighborhoods – have been as fortunate.
After a decade of decline, the number of lead-poisoned children in Kent County is rising. Recent data published by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) shows a 40 percent increase in lead-poisoned children in the 49507 zip code during the past two years.
This Grand Rapids neighborhood leads the state in numbers of lead-poisoned children. In fact, more children were lead poisoned in 49507 than all seven Flint zip codes combined – before, during, and after the Flint water crisis.
The lead poisoning is causing serious health problems, including permanent brain damage.
Why lead poisoning is on the rise in Kent County, and particularly in Grand Rapids – and what can be done about it – was the subject of discussion and debate at the Oct. 30 event held at Dickinson Academy on Grand Rapids’ southeast side. The event was facilitated by members of the recently formed Parents for Healthy Homes organization.
Held on the heels of the national Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, the event brought together about 40 parents and Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan representatives plus Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack. Representatives from Home Repair Service, the Kent County Health Department and Legal Aid also attended.
The alarming lead-paint-poisoning statistics frustrate and anger Adams. Now she’s speaking out. She is part of the recently formed Parents for Healthy Homes which facilitated the October 30th meeting.
“These are our kids, and they’re being poisoned – our future is being poisoned,” Adams said. “We need to let more people know about lead poisoning and how to stop it from happening in the first place. Prevention is key.”
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 is especially toxic to babies, children and pregnant women.
“We need to hear from the community – and especially the parents – about how lead exposure can be prevented in the first place,” said Paul Haan, executive director at the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. “I think parents know how we can do better by our kids, and how we can help them to stop hurting.”
LyRee Adams was among the local parents leading roundtable discussions with peers to discuss the problem and what can be done to stop lead poisoning in the community. She was joined by other parent-facilitators, including Shirley Jones, a Grand Rapids parent and grandparent.
“Hearing the stories of families affected by lead – especially that 49507 leads the state for most lead-poisoned children – piqued my interest and I wanted to get involved and talk to parents about prevention. There’s a bed-bug registry for hotels – why shouldn’t there be a similar registry of homes with lead-based paint?” Jones said.
Lisa Matthews, also a Grand Rapids parent and grandparent, agreed.
“We need to get this information out there. There are a lot of parents who don’t know about the dangers of lead-based paint. It’s not necessarily what’s going in the household but what’s actually in the house that could be causing problems in children,” Matthews said.
Matthews’ 3-year-old grandson tested positive for lead a year ago. She encourages parents to get their children tested but said it’s also important for the house itself to be tested for presence of lead.
“If your home has issues, even if your child hasn’t tested positive for lead, work together with your landlord to get the lead out before the child is poisoned. As parents, we should be the main ones to step forward. We're the first to know what's going on with our kids and we need to take action. But landlords are responsible too,” Matthews said. “We need to work together.”
Dozens of suggestions and comments initially written on Post-It notes by the parents were then projected on a large screen for all at the event to see and discuss.
One parent suggested mandatory lead testing at all yearly health checkups. Another suggested free lead testing of all homes. Many wanted more education about the issue in the community.
Adams suggested “reciprocity agreements” with landlords: “If a renter has to give a deposit to a landlord, shouldn’t the landlord have to give some kind of guarantee that the property is lead-free?” she posed.
Ultimately, the parents in attendance advocated strongly for educational opportunities in their communities, a stronger presence in the media, and required testing of homes and children for lead.
The group of parents will continue to work on awareness-building and actionable steps, continuing to reach out to a wider array of parents and community leaders. Parents that would like to get involved should contact Talor Musil, community organizer with the Healthy Homes Coalition. She can be reached by phone at (616) 241-3300 x308.