Lead poisoning on the rise in Kent County — 40% rise in zip code 49507

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By Paul Haan, Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan


After a decade of decline, the number of lead-poisoned children in Kent County is rising. Recent data 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.


According to data provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), 615 Kent County children had elevated blood-lead levels in 2016 — the year for which most recent data is available. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) as the reference level at which the CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.


Two out of every three lead poisoned-children in Kent County live in zip codes 49507, 49504 or 49503. These are high-poverty, high-minority neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. African-American children were lead-poisoned at twice the rate of white children in Grand Rapids in 2015, according to MDHHS data.


“Many people are unaware that lead exposure from dust in the house and soil in the yard is the culprit,” said Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan and gubernatorial appointee to the state of Michigan’s Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission. 


It should be noted that lead in the water is not the cause here: The city of Grand Rapids water testing under the federal Lead and Copper Rule demonstrates that Grand Rapids has been in compliance since 2001. The amount of lead in Grand Rapids water is far below federal thresholds and is among the safest in the state.


Currently, houses in Kent County aren’t required to be tested for lead. A property owner can sell, rent or remodel a home without checking it for lead or lead hazards. The city of Grand Rapids last updated its housing codes in regards to lead in 2005.


“Many property owners and property dwellers may have no idea that dangerous lead exists in their home,” Haan said. “Even well-intentioned remodelers might not be dealing properly with lead and actually making the problem worse.”


Haan also said there is a correlation between the current housing crisis and the increase in lead poisoning. “With West Michigan’s robust real estate market, it’s harder now to find healthy homes to live in. The seller’s market is great for sellers but not necessarily good for buyers and renters.”


Last fall, Grand Rapids was awarded $2.9 million in HUD funding to fix homes with lead-based paint hazards. Typical “fixes” include new windows and exterior painting or siding. The HUD funding is available to eligible homeowners, landlords and tenants. 


The city of Grand Rapids  administers the funding locally. In September of this year, the city expanded program eligibility, making funding available to even more people.


Anyone who owns or rents a home in the city of Grand Rapids built before 1978 is encouraged to learn about funding eligibility. For more information, please call the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan at 616.241.3300 or visit www.GetTheLeadOutGR.org. Or, contact the city of Grand Rapids Community Development Department at 616.456.3030.