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Cleveland officials say city will be ‘lead safe’ over the next decade

January 22, 2019

Cleveland officials say city will be ‘lead safe’ over the next decade

CLEVELAND, Ohio-- Cleveland officials, joined by members of local philanthropic, healthcare, environmental and educational organizations, said Tuesday the city will work towards a “lead safe” Cleveland by drastically reducing the number of children exposed to the toxin.

In announcing the “Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition,” Mt. Sinai Healthcare Foundation President Mitchell Balk, representing the seven philanthropic organizations that have partnered with the city, said the plan “will result in a significant reduction” in the number of children with lead in their blood in Cleveland.

“Our aim is to reduce lead exposure in both rental properties and owner-occupied homes,” said Balk. “Lead Safe Cleveland is rolling up its sleeves, ready to get the job done.”

Mayor Frank Jackson said that while many organizations in the city have been working for years to make a difference in this area, but have not had as large an impact because there was not enough collaboration. “I believe we will get it done,” Jackson said.

“Should it have happened 10 years ago, probably so. Should it have happened 50 years ago, probably so,” Jackson said. “So now here we are.”

Jackson did not commit to a specific measure of success or a timeframe for achieving the coalition’s goals. Kelley said the coalition will know it is successful “when less children are poisoned.”

The coalition said its plans include a “Lead Safe Summit” as well as a dedicated fund to support the group’s work.

Councilman Blaine Griffin acknowledged that there have been multiple lead summits convened in the past, which have not accomplished their goals. But, he said “we’re going to keep doing it until we get it right.”

Griffin said a public-private supported lead-safe home fund is “an opportunity to work with landlords, not in opposition to them,” Griffin said in order to clean up lead in city rentals.

“While removing lead entirely from Cleveland is likely an insurmountable task,” Balk said, the coalition believes it can make significant reductions similar to that achieved in Rochester, New York. In that city, a change in policy on inspecting rental homes led to a 85 percent reduction in lead poisoning in that city.

Officials say it would be hard to promise that no child will be poisoned by the toxin, as more than 80 percent of homes in Cleveland were built before 1970 and, therefore, likely contain lead paint, which was officially banned from sale in 1978.

A recent Case Western Reserve University study found that more than a quarter of Cleveland public school kindergartners were poisoned at or above the level that triggers public health action. That same study showed that more than 15 percent of the kindergartners had no recorded test for lead, even though by state standards most should be tested at least twice by then.

No level of lead exposure is considered safe for young children. The toxin can cause irreversible damage to a developing brain and lead to health, behavioral and learning issues, even at low levels of exposure.

What officials haven’t cemented is exactly how they expect to make that pledge a reality. Possible solutions, such as a “pay for success” model fizzled after community leaders and public officials could not agree that strategy to remediate lead from 10,000 homes in the most at-risk neighborhoods made sense.

Dramatic drops in lead poisoning

The numbers of children poisoned have dropped dramatically nationwide, and locally, too. But Cleveland has remained among the worst in the county, with young children here poisoned at four times the national average.

In 2017, about 13 percent of children tested, and not all are tested, had levels of lead in their blood at or above levels that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend action.

Public health experts agree, and have for years, the single-best way to tackle the problem is to fix the hazardous environments, to prevent children from coming into contact with lead dust or paint chips to begin with. All other strategies are purely reactive, essentially turning children into human “lead detectors.”

Solutions come slowly

It’s taken more than three years to get to this point.

In 2015, The Plain Dealer launched its Toxic Neglect series, an effort to examine Cleveland’s legacy of lead poisoning and what might be done to prevent another generation of children from harm.

The investigation found that city health officials often failed to inspect homes that might have poisoned children. When the city did inspect and found hazardous levels of lead, it often failed to force property owners to fix the problem.

The state, which has ultimate authority to prevent lead poisoning, was lax in making sure Cleveland, and other cities, followed Ohio law to post warning signs on homes with hazards.

Last year, following a lawsuit filed by The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, a court also ordered Cleveland to placard any home currently known to be a lead hazard that had not been repaired.

Laws not enforced

Over the years, Cleveland has passed multiple laws with an aim of protecting children from lead.

The laws, the Plain Dealer found, either were not enforced or were voluntary – with no incentive to volunteer.

City lawmakers have shown reluctance to pass new laws mandating a lead safe standard, citing the city’s lack of enforcement of routine code violations and the potential for more tenants with children to be evicted if enforcement is stepped up.

Since 2015, Cleveland has worked to clear a backlog of incompletely investigated cases and it has started to follow state laws that require it to post warnings and vacate hazardous homes.

The city also hired more health inspectors and started a rental inspection unit that officials say will make homes healthier and safer for tenants. The inspections are primarily in rentals registered with the city, and whose owners voluntarily reply to a letter to set an inspection. The process has netted relatively few violations with more than 10,000 units inspected.

In September, building department officials told city council that rental inspectors had tested about 10 percent of homes during inspections for lead dust, short of the 25 percent it promised in 2017. About 5 percent of the tested units contained hazardous levels of lead. The department expected to hit its 25 percent goal as more inspectors were certified to conduct lead testing.

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.

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