If Flint, Michigan's lead poisoning crisis cracked the nation’s eyes open to what being exposed to a pervasive toxin means, public officials could see it coming. Lead exposure has been unfolding across America, particularly in its urban centers, for decades.
While Lead had a lot of advantages for manufacturers—paint makers liked it because it sped drying and increased durability—health experts had made the link between lead paint and a pervasive problem sticking around in cities like Cleveland long ago.
“As bad as Flint was, they have about one-third of the children lead poisoned as Cleveland,” said Dr. Dorr Dearborn, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Case and a long-time advocate for Healthy Homes, an method of removing toxins from homes before harm is done. “We still have our own major problem in Cleveland.”
The city and Cuyahoga County still have three to four times the cases of lead poisoned children than the nation as a whole, reports Dearborn. The crisis in Cleveland has been known to public health officials like Terry Allen, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. Due to targeted efforts, mostly in known hot spots in Cleveland, cases have dropped in the last decade.
“We have a long way to go, but progress has been made,” Allen said. “Our biggest risk is complacency.”
Allen added that the victims of lead poisoning and their caregivers need more resources and more support. Parents have said they are afraid of being evicted, lacked transportation to or weren’t aware of the importance of blood testing.
Cleveland’s new health director, Merle Gordon, said the city is working on an agreement with landlords where they would report and be responsible for fixing lead exposure; modeled after a law that the City of Toledo recently passed.
“It is our responsibility to fix this problem,” she said.
Since so many homes in Northeast Ohio were covered in lead-based paint, peeling exposes lead chips and dust. An astonishing 400,000 children (49%) in Cuyahoga County have elevated blood levels. Lead can disrupt brain function and lead to serious learning impairments. It is also connected to higher crime rates because of its affect on attention span and impulse control.
Because of the connection between poor dwelling conditions and lead poisoning, many have cast lead as an urban issue, but Dr. Brown, the Centers for Disease Control’s top official on lead and healthy homes, commented that the problem is more pervasive than the public may realize.
“We got accused of using kids as canaries,” said Brown, a Lakewood native. “And that’s true. But the sad part is, we’re not listening to their song.’”
Brown pointed out that exposure won’t necessarily lock Cleveland children into a lifelong problem. Children in the 1970s were exposed to ten times as much lead, Brown said, including herself, and managed through education to succeed.
“Dr. Brown reminded us that if we think lead kids are doomed to fail in school or life, they will,” said Dr. Nichole Burt, Curator and Head of Human Health & Evolutionary Medicine at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which hosted the panel discussion. “Responses need to be tailored to the community to ensure medical and home treatments and interventions get the results we want, healthy kids and families.”