STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Getting the word out about Get the Lead Out

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Organizers of the Get the Lead Outprogram in Grand Rapids are trying right now to get the word out for people to apply for assistance with lead removal in their homes.

As we’ve reported before on State of Opportunity, lead is one of the most dangerous chemicals in the environment affecting young children.

In Grand Rapids, the funds for lead removal may soon dry up. And the push is on to fix as many homes as possible before that happens.

I walk up the driveway next to a yellow house on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. Next door, a dog barks. At the yellow house, a man stands on a ladder, cutting away some vinyl trim. His work area is marked off with an ominous stretch of red tape. The dog and I are on the other side of it.

"Am I allowed to come on this side?" I ask.

"No, you’re not," the man says.

The man is Viv Jaunais. He’s here on a job to replace windows and cover up any paint on the house that might contain a very dangerous poison: lead.

And there are very specific regulations when it comes to the kind of work Jaunais is doing – lead abatement work. One of them is this scary piece of tape I’m not allowed to cross.

"I mean, I’ve had people drive by and think that somebody was murdered … like it was police tape," Jaunais says. 

The tape is there – all of the regulations are there – because lead is such a serious threat, more serious than many parents realize.

"When you hear about lead poisoning, you assume it’s, you know, people eating it, kids eating it, and getting sick, says Ed Carmona. "But we didn’t realize that there’s a lot of developmental stuff that goes along with the lead poisoning. " 

Ed Carmona and his wife had to quickly learn about lead poisoning. A little less than two years ago, their son, Jackson, tested positive for lead poisoning during a routine doctor’s visit.

First, they Googled what lead poisoning actually is, and that turned up some scary results. Lead poisoning can affect developing brains and cause permanent damage. It’s been associated with a loss of impulse control, which can lead to learning disabilities and behavior problems. It can also do damage to the kidneys and slow a child’s overall growth.

After some stressful days, and a battery of tests, Carmona learned his son was not showing any signs of permanent damage. So the next step was to figure out where the lead came from and get it out.

"When you have a young child, when they’re under five, that first couple years is so important development-wise," Carmona says. "And the last thing you want is to have that development blocked in any way. You want to make sure that, you know, they have a fair chance at everything."

"Ideally, we don't want to use kids as lead detectors," says Paul Haan, director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. "So we want to make sure that they're never exposed to lead in the first place."

One of the main ways children are exposed to lead is through old paint. So, out went old windows in Carmona’s house. The floor in his son’s room was redone. And a new layer of paint went in any areas that tested high for lead.

The cost of all of it was covered through the City of Grand Rapids' Get the Lead Out program.

Paul Haan, who directs the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, a partner in the program, says the goal is actually to fix up homes before a child is exposed to lead.

"Ideally, we don’t want to use kids as lead detectors," Haan says. "So we want to make sure that they’re never exposed to lead in the first place."

Haan says over the past 10 years, the Get the Lead Out program has fixed up over 1,300 homes in Grand Rapids. Other cities have similar programs. Usually the focus is on urban areas, with older homes, anything with paint that was applied before 1978 when lead was banned from use in paints.

The state has targeted 14 cities in Michigan for lead abatement, but Haan says the Get the Lead Out program in Grand Rapids is near the end of its current federal grant.

"We hope to have more money down the road," Haan says. "But, you know, things can change."

Haan says anyone who qualifies for assistance with lead abatement in their home in Grand Rapids should apply to the Get the Lead Out program before December 1. The application can be found here

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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