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Data shows even higher lead poisoning in kids in West Michigan than Flint

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The recent scandal over lead-poisoning in the water in Flint prompted many of our communities to take a closer look at the issue. According to recent data, West Michigan neighborhoods are home to even higher levels of lead poisoning in kids than Flint.

The problem in Flint was so bad it forced the head of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality to quit last week. Yet as this crisis continues, data shows the problem is broader than the Flint area.

In a recent report, The Center for Michigan, a think tank promoting awareness of public policy issues, cited evidence that among five Grand Rapids’ zip codes alone, nearly one in 10 kids tested positive for lead poisoning.

“In Grand Rapids, it’s collectively between those zip codes, it’s 10 percent,” said Paul Haan, executive director with the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. “We’re four times the national level of kids with that low to moderate to even high level of lead poison.”

Haan told FOX 17 lead-based paint in older, distressed homes is the underlying problem of lead poisoning.

“Lead is a colossal problem because the reality is we let the genie out of the bottle, or the lead paint out of the can, for more than a century,” Haan said.

“So we have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of housing units across the state of Michigan that have this lead based paint spread upon them. So how do you put that genie back into the bottle?”

Haan called kids “lead detectors,” urging for landlords and families with children to test their homes for lead first, rather than waiting for a devastating blood test. However, he and other Kent County Health Department leaders recognize the lack of funding and support for families in need.

“Families would like to get their home done, and get the remodeling done in a lead safe way and they look for a program that might cover that, and there’s limited resources in that regard,” said Joan Dyer Zyskowski, program supervisor with the Community Wellness Division for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

“We had a HUD grant here in the city of Grand Rapids, we don’t have one now."

Like many others, they are calling for government and philanthropic funding to go toward building safe, affordable housing for families with kids.

Specifically, Haan believed a tiered strategy would help eradicate lead poisoning, including: landlords would ensure rental properties are in safe condition; agencies would raise more awareness for parents to affordably protect their children from lead; and then concentrated education and funding to safely fix or replace housing with high lead levels.

“We’ve got to target families with children to make sure those kids are safe because it not only provides a housing unit that’s affordable for that family, but that becomes a platform for so many other things: good health, good performance in school, good employees later on in life,” Haan said.

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9 comments

  • Peter R.

    Not surprising, given the age of most GR city homes. What really surprises me is that these homes, most built in the 1930’s-1940’s, are continuing to rise in value even though they are at the end of their usable life cycle. These are wood frame houses built on “Michigan basements”…you can renovate and update them all you want, but at some point (a majority of houses within the city are within 15 years of this point, btw) there is simply nothing more that can be done with them and they have to either be taken down or lifted up and a proper foundation put in so that they stop leaching moisture up into the wood frame. The cost of that process usually exceeds the value of the home in question, making it a very unattractive option if it is an option at all. In addition, many of these homes now also have vinyl siding over the original asbestos siding, and no disclosure about that is required. Fifteen years from now when the city makes you pay to tear your house down, that is going to be a pretty expensive bill!

    But naturally all this works in the city’s favor, because it is currently trying to drive the poor and lower middle class out of the city anyway. You can’t be a big progressive and modern city with poor people hanging around, can you? No, you can’t. The question is, what is the city going to do in 15 years when all of these lead and asbestos-laden homes need to be torn down according to expensive federal guidelines? More importantly, how do you keep the market for these old houses from collapsing until you are ready for this transition to happen when everybody knows about it now?

    Once again, Grand Rapids has painted itself into a corner. Literally, this time.
    Our city motto really does need to change to “Forward thinking, backward acting”.

    • Andrew

      That is an extremely interesting point! I hadn’t thought about that, but you are right. I wonder what the average age of a house in GR City is? That could be a very serious problem!

      • Bob

        My house was built in 1890 and is in as good of shape today as it was when it was built. Most of the houses in Heritage Hills are well over a hundred years old.

        If a house is taken care of it will last a long time.

        Peter R has no idea what he is talking about.

        • Sheila

          Heritage HIlls houses do not account for a majority, or even a significant percentage of houses in GR, Bob. Just because you live in one, doesn’t mean that most people do. Peter’s comment doesn’t discount those homes. If you read what he said carefully you will see that he accounts for the non-typical exceptions such as yours very well.

          The question you should ask yourself though, and I think this is his point, is at what point will the cost of keeping that 1890 house of yours up become more expensive than the value of the house itself. If the majority of the houses in GR plummet in value because of their age and structural content (lead, asbestos, etc.), yours will plummet in value as well no matter how well it is taken care of or what shape it is in. When that happens, you may find that the cost of keeping it up exceeds the value of the house despite its condition. It is a legitimate municipal concern I think, and not one that is at all obvious.

          • Peter R.

            That is correct, Sheila. Thanks.
            While Bob is right that houses which are well taken care of can last well over a hundred years, very few of them are. That is the whole reason that Heritage Hill is considered to be “special” in that regard. It is a few blocks where the houses are taken care of in that admirable manner. But 50 houses out of 50,000 (or however many there actually are in the city of GR) is statistically inconsequential, even though it may mean a lot to Bob. And since home valuation is based on numbers, not feelings, Bob’s undoubtedly majestic home will absolutely lose value at the same rate as everyone else’s.

  • Andrew

    “We’ve got to target families with children to make sure those kids are safe because it not only provides a housing unit that’s affordable for that family, but that becomes a platform for so many other things: good health, good performance in school, good employees later on in life,” Haan said.

    Yeah? Tell me Mr. Haan, what good does it do us to put all of that investment into creating good employees later on in life if when that time comes the good employees all pack up for other states where the get better pay, more comfortable lifestyles, and lower taxes? None of that investment comes to anything if that happens, and in case you haven’t noticed it IS happening. It is happening right now. Those good employees are moving as quickly as the jobs come available because they want better for themselves and for their own kids than we have to offer here. Wake up, Mr. Haan. Safe and affordable housing is the most basic provision a city can offer inhabitants. If you don’t have it, you don’t have a city, you merely have a “settlement”.

    • KATHRYN

      Ks are not “eating” the lead paint. What happens is, windows, painted with lead paint, open and close. Lead dust floats into the room due to friction. Children tent to put their hands in their mouths. They may have picked up this dust from crawling on the floor, or by touching the walls and that’s how it is ingested much of the time. Also the airborne dust gets breathed in.