Children in two Springfield neighborhoods have a nearly 1 in 3 chance of having enough lead in their blood to cause delays in their physical or mental development, attention problems and learning disabilities, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
There are similar areas in cities across Ohio such as Hamilton and Dayton.
But the source of the problem generally isn’t water — as many fear in Flint, Mich. — it’s poverty.
“There is a lot of valuable research that links poverty and elevated blood levels,” ODH lead program director John Belt said. “The reasons are obvious. If I’m in a low-income strata, my housing is probably going to be rental housing, my housing is probably going to be older housing. Because I’m in poverty I’m limited to where I can reside, which steers me to areas with low maintenance.”
Older homes with peeling and poorly maintained lead paint — which can be ingested by young children — is a major contributor to lead poisoning in Ohio, which affects thousands of Ohio children each year, including hundreds in area counties.
The two areas of Springfield identified as highest risk are neighborhoods on the south side. One is the area near West Johnny Lytle Avenue and the other is north of East Grand Avenue.
The total number of local children poisoned by lead is unknown. A 2014 Springfield News-Sun investigation found that the state had records of less than one-third of the children younger than 3 living in high-risk zip codes being tested. It’s unknown how many private pediatricians might have tested children.
The state has since made efforts to reach more kids, educating parents and health-care providers that testing is required for children at ages 1 and 2 who are on Medicaid, who live in older homes or in high-risk zip codes.
In Springfield, because so much of the city falls into the high-risk category, every child who visits a pediatrician is supposed to be tested by age 1, said Shannon Meadows, community development director for the city, which runs the Lead Safe Springfield program.
But it’s likely the number of children tested statewide hasn’t increased. In 2012 ODH found that more than 3,050 Clark County children younger than 6 were tested for lead in their blood that year, though there were an estimated to be about three times that many children living in high-risk areas. But in 2014, only about 2,290 kids were tested.
In that same amount of time the number of Clark County children with elevated lead blood levels increased from 37 in 2012 to 91 in 2014, according to ODH data. Last year that came back down to 30 children, Meadows said.
Nationwide, the CDC reports the number of children suffering from elevated levels of lead poisoning has drastically decreased over the past two decades, Meadows said, as communities have committed to fighting the problem.
In 1995, there were 230 children in Springfield identified with elevated blood levels.
“As a country we started taking lead poisoning seriously,” she said.
If you compare Ohio to other states, Belt said it has had great success in addressing the lead threat, “but we know we can improve on those numbers.”
“Our efforts are focused around increasing the blood lead testing rate of children who are at risk for lead poisoning,” Belt said. “We still are not testing 100 percent of those children who should be tested.”
Springfield is shifting its efforts to focus on education and testing, Meadows said, but away from grant programs that have paid for lead abatement of homes.
The city has distributed $20 million over the past 20 years to homeowners to remove lead paint and other hazards from their properties. But not enough qualifying applicants have been coming forward in recent years.
The city didn’t even apply to renew the grant last year, but the federal government extended its deadline to use money left over from last cycle. They can now use it through June.
The city has removed lead hazards from 94 homes under the current grant, with 19 more in the works, according to Bobbie Reno, the city’s Lead Safe coordinator. The city has the money to do about 50 more.
“Just call us,” Meadows said, if residents are concerned about lead. “We have the capacity to get the work done, we just need the applicants.”
Gabrielle Leffel and her boyfriend Thomas Lay just had work completed on their rental property on Kenton Street. When they moved in with their 3-year-old son, the landlord notified them that the home needed lead abatement and contacted Lead Safe Springfield to get an application started.
The program coordinators were extremely nice and accommodating, Leffel said.
“It took longer than I thought it would,” she said, but the family hasn’t had to pay for any of the work and was put up in a hotel with a food stipend while they had to be out of the home this week.
Leffel said she now wants to make her family members are aware that there may be programs for them to get lead abatement.
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