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SPECIAL REPORT: Get the Lead out

WSBT 22

It could be all over your home and you don't even know it. Lead-based paint was common in older homes, especially on doors, walls and windows.

Now, health officials are concerned about how it’s impacting the health of children.

The Health Effects

Some studies have shown that high blood-lead levels can impact a child’s brain development. Research has shown that lead poisoning can cause permanent damage to a child’s cognition, cause kidney failure and have other dangerous health effects as a child’s body develops.

“Lead is a neuro-toxin, and it’s particularly dangerous to children because they are building their brains,” said Marya Lieberman, an analytical chemist and professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame. “If a kid ate a one centimeter square of a paint chip, that would be enough to give them an elevated blood-lead level.”

The Scope of the Problem

More than 65 percent of homes in St. Joseph County were built before 1980, according to U.S. Census data. That means they could contain lead based paint.

Indiana State Department of Health data shows almost 20 percent of children tested on South Bend's Northwest side between 2005 and 2015 had confirmed elevated levels of lead in their blood. ISDH recommends that local health departments begin case management with children who have levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or greater of lead in their blood. The Centers for Disease Control also lists dangerous blood-lead levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter. Right now, the St. Joseph County Health Department is only working one-on-one with families whose children have blood-lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher.

“If there’s a lead poisoned child living in the home, we automatically go out and do risk assessment,” said Whitney Griffin, St. Joseph County’s Environmental Health Specialist. “My job is to help the families find the hazards in the home and then recommend ways to remediate any problems in the home.”

Griffin worked one-on-one with 13 families in St. Joseph County last year. A Health Department nurse also works with the family to ensure the child has a proper diet.

“You want to make sure you’re keeping the home free of dust, you want to make sure the child has a diet that’s high in iron and a diet that’s high in calcium,” Griffin said. “That way, their little bodies aren’t absorbing as much of the lead as they’re coming into contact with.”

The Health Department also notifies families of children who test lower than 10 micrograms per deciliter. They receive a letter with information and tips on how to reduce lead exposure in their home.

“Most families aren’t aware of the lead hazards that are in the home,” Griffin said. “Most people think, ‘Oh, my kid isn’t walking up to the wall, picking paint off and eating it, so they’re not being exposed to lead.’ When actually, most of the lead-poisoned children are coming into contact with lead dust, and that’s how they’re becoming poisoned.”

When a child is lead poisoned, the Health Department will give the property owner an order with 60 days to fix the problem. Griffin will go back and do a clearance check when that time frame is up.

Getting Rid of the Problem

“When it comes to remediating lead hazards in the home, you can either do interim controls, which is something that’s temporary and going to require ongoing monitoring, or there’s abatement,” Griffin said. “Abatement includes replacement, encapsulation and enclosure.”

Under federal law, anyone working on a home or child occupied facility built before 1978 for compensation has to be a certified renovator working with a certified firm. That means contractors have to be RRP or renovation, repair and painting, certified. They can take the eight-hour course for roughly $250.

“It’s designed by the EPA to make sure that contractors, no matter what they do, if they disturb any part of a house that’s built before 1978 they’re required by law and threat of a $38,000 fine per day per incident for not taking the course,” said John Casey, a certified lead abatement contractor and president/CEO of Greentree Environmental.

Once any lead-based paint or lead dust is safely removed from a home, Casey says it goes to the landfill like any other trash.

A spokesperson with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management told WSBT 22 that lead is not considered hazardous once it's removed from the home.

Casey says homeowners often buy a home without knowing there's lead in it.

Landlords and owners have to indicate yes, no, or “I don't know” on a lead disclosure form before they sell or lease a home.

“Traditionally, the realtor will advise to say “I don’t know,” and that’s mainly because they don’t have to fix it,” Casey said. “Nobody wants to test it because they’re afraid if they test it, now they know and now they’re responsible to fix it at the house.”

In Indiana, Casey says rental properties aren’t required to be tested for lead every year. He says contractors here also aren’t required to shows their RRP permit before working on a pre-1978 home.

The Cost

Whether it’s shorter-term solutions, like painting, or long-terms solution, such as abatement, the homeowner foots the bill.

“If you’re going to paint over it, the best way is with an encapsulate that’s rated at 20 years,” Casey said. “So, as long as the surface prep is done properly, you can bang on it with a hammer, and it’s not going to crack, paint, peel or chip.”

That paint, however, could cost roughly $100 per gallon. When it comes to abatement, contractors say it could cost about $600 just to get rid of the lead in a window.

For homeowners like Brittany Griffith, the bills are adding up. Her 1920’s South Bend home contains lead paint, so much that a routine wellness check for her son showed his blood-lead levels were in the lead-poisoned range.

“There’s nothing,” Griffith said. “You have to make the money, and you have to fix the problem because you’re in the problem.”

She moved into her home five years ago. The house was inspected and cleared, with no indication of any lead hazards.

“In five years, my house has become decrepit, cracked, chipped and peeled,” Griffith said.

Even the tiles in her bathroom have lead. So does the window frame.

And because she's not a certified lead abatement contractor, she's not allowed to completely remove the problems herself. She says the cost of abatement would total more than what she paid for her home.

“Nobody wants to pay for the problem,” Griffith said. “I can’t pay for the problem, the city doesn’t want to pay for the problem, taxpayers don’t want to pay for the problem, citizens don’t want to pay for the problem, but we don’t want to live in houses that are killing us.”

Griffith says her husband has taken on a second job to help pay for repairs. She says they’ve spent almost $1,000 on paint alone. The Griffith’s are doing case management with Whitney Griffin and the Health Department.

Budget Burdens

In years past, a grant through Housing and Urban Development helped abate 140 homes in our area. That money is no longer available.

“I think it's really just a lack of funding,” said Sue Taylor, manager of early-childhood services at Women, Infants and Children in St. Joseph County.

Lead services at programs like WIC also took a hit when that grant was cut. About 2,000 children were tested there for lead every year, but that stopped last May.

"The only cost is the salary of the people who are doing it because all of the lead testing materials and all of the lab work is done for free,” Taylor said.

WIC started blood-lead testing again last month thanks to a grant from the University of Notre Dame. Taylor says that money will only last a few months.

Cash has also impacted the Health Department's lead program. From 2006 to 2012, the Indiana Department of Health gave St. Joseph County close to $600,000 in Centers for Disease Control lead prevention money.

A state Department of Health spokesperson told WSBT 22 that money was used for blood-lead testing, but the CDC eliminated the funding in 2012. No counties received any money after that.

Health officials in St. Joseph County have said that “no level of lead is acceptable.” That’s why the county Health Department adopted a “Lead Action Plan” in February of this year. It outlines a community-wide effort to improve lead screening and case management with local children and their families. Last year, the county Health Department couldn't afford to work one-on-one with roughly 140 families, whose children's blood-lead levels tested just below the dangerous levels, between 5-10 micrograms per deciliter. This plan hopes to provide more services and support for families with children testing for those blood-lead levels.

In St. Joseph County, the Health Department will do a free risk assessment for families with a child under the age of 7 and a pregnant woman living in the home.

The South Bend Medical Foundation is also working with the County Health Department to provide free lead screenings. Click here to access the form.

Bridging the gap

“I was driving to work one morning and I heard this piece on the radio about how there was a problem with elevated blood-lead levels in children in my hometown, and I wanted to do something to help,” Lieberman said.

That’s why she and a group of students at Notre Dame and I.U. South Bend are stepping in to help.

“This is something we can do,” Lieberman said. “We have the equipment, we have people who can do the analytical work and can assist in other ways, like looking at the public health aspect of the problem.”

Lieberman is working side by side with Professor Grace Muna, an Associate Professor at I.U. South Bend’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“We are trying to supplement some of the work the county health people already do,” Lieberman said. “They already work with children who have blood-lead levels above 10mg/dl. We’re working with families where the lead exposure is a little bit less. If your child’s blood-lead level is at an eight or nine, you are really going to be curious about why.”

The professors and their students will spend the summer going to South Bend homes where children have been exposed to lead. With the homeowner’s permission, they’ll use different techniques to test paint samples throughout the home to try and determine where the main sources of lead paint are located.

“If you’re doing something that’s helping the community, I think you see how great it is to take your science that’s in the classroom and take it out there in the field,” Muna said.

Looking elsewhere

WSBT 22 asked other local counties for information regarding blood-lead tests.

The Elkhart County Health Department told WSBT 22 that 15 children tested in 2016 had blood-lead levels 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher, and 88 children had blood-lead levels between 5 and 9 micrograms per deciliter. Census Data shows between 45 percent and 65 percent of homes in Elkhart County were built before 1980.

In Berrien County, close to 75 percent of the homes were built before 1978. A spokesperson with the Berrien County Health Department told WSBT 22 there are more cases of child lead poisoning in homes where parents or homeowners disrupt lead-based paint while trying to do “Do It Yourself” projects and upgrades to a home.

The Michigan Department of Health considers a child’s blood-lead level to be elevated if it is more than 5 micrograms per deciliter. According to the Berrien County Health Department, all children enrolled in the WIC program are tested. Children enrolled in Medicaid are also tested at 1 and 2 years old. Health Department data from 2015 shows that 1,700 children, which makes up only 15 percent of children under age 6 in the county, were tested.

Of those, 65 children or 3.8 percent tested with levels greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter. The Health Department says higher concentration of lead-poisoned children in Berrien County include the “more urban” areas of Benton Harbor and Niles.

Similar to area counties, public health experts including nurses, environmental sanitarians and nutritionists, help families identify the source of lead in the home by doing home visits and educating families on how to reduce or eliminate the child’s exposure through cleaning, nutrition and safety. The Health Department says HUD grants have funding lead abatement in homes in the past, but that funding is no longer available.

A spokesperson for the Health Department told WSBT 22 that Michigan does have funds to help families with lead abatement in homes. Several families in Berrien County have received that assistance.

LaPorte County's Health Department referred WSBT 22 to 2016 Indiana Department of Health data, which shows that 930 children under age 7 were tested in LaPorte County, and 33 tested had levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter. Of those 33, only 6 had confirmatory tests that showed levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Click here for more information from the EPA on how to safely do renovations in a home with lead-based paint.

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