Maria and Brisa
“Your daughter is lead-poisoned,” said a health worker who showed up on Maria Ellena Gonzalez’ doorstep nine years ago. Gonzalez had no idea what to think. She does now.
Brisa Gonzalez, then 2 years old, was eating lead paint chips and inhaling lead dust in the Grand Rapids home the family recently moved into. Because lead paint tastes sweet, the toddler had been seeking out the paint chips in the home. “She was eating it,” said her mother.
The early intervention from the Kent County Health Department, the State of Michigan and federally supported lead prevention programs caught Brisa’s poisoning early. Not all Michigan kids are so lucky.
Close to 5,700 children in Michigan were above the Centers for Disease Control recommended action level for lead poisoning in 2012, according to state officials. Most of those children probably ingested the poison from old paint applied prior to the ban on lead in paint in 1978. Also troubling, less than 60% of at-risk kids who should be tested for lead poisoning actually are, so there are likely thousands more undiagnosed cases.
Lead paint poisoning is permanent and irreversible. It lowers IQ, causes restlessness and hyperactivity, is linked to lower graduation rates and poor MEAP testing, and is shown to cause aggressive behavior and increase incarceration rates. In the body, lead damages the heart, liver, bones, brain, reproductive system and even hearing. At very high levels, lead poisoning can cause death.
To help make sure no more kids are poisoned by lead in Michigan, Gonzalez and her daughter Brisa were part of the March 6 Lead Education Day at the State Capitol, coordinated by the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Housing and led by the Michigan Environmental Council. Several dozen advocates, parents, policymakers, lead contractors and health experts met with legislators and staffers to outline the problem and urge forward-thinking solutions.
Unlike many public health issues where solutions are elusive, lead poisoning prevention is straightforward and solvable. Lead causes lead poisoning, it’s cut and dried. With a price tag of $4.85 billion a year in lost earnings from lead poisoning, this is both a moral and economic issue for our state.
“We know exactly how children are harmed – almost exclusively from old paint that is peeling, flaking or has turned to dust during renovations,” said Tina Reynolds, MEC’s health policy director. “Removing or encapsulating the old paint solves the problem and keeps children safe. It’s not rocket science, it’s simply a matter of money and willpower.”
Both money in the budget for programs like the ones that saved Brisa – and willpower from lawmakers to protect Michigan’s children – were on the “ask” list during the education day. Michigan has boots on the ground now to combat this problem. Foundations, donors, community partners, health departments, service organizations and the Department of Community Health have been at work in our hardest hit communities.
As federal funding begins to dry up however, many local service providers are closing their doors leaving families in jeopardy. State money for lead poisoning prevention and abatement have been slim to none for years now. Michigan has relied on the federal government for funding and the free ride is over.
This is the message that was shared with 24 key legislators on March 6th. Coalition members got a good response from policy makers and are hopeful, but will continue to press the case.