Kent County is adding two sanitarian positions to help identify lead exposure.
The two proposed sanitarian positions will be trained and charged with conducting lead inspection and risk assessments of affected houses in Kent County, including checking people’s blood for elevated lead levels.
Each sanitarian will be able to perform these services at 30-40 houses annually, according to Adam London, Kent County administrative health officer.
The county’s Community Health Advisory Committee workgroup report states there are more than 430 addresses in Kent County where children have been lead poisoned, and additional homes are being added to that list as blood lead testing continues. These homes are prioritized for outreach, education, inspection, abatement as resources allow, and other risk reduction strategies.
The use of lead paint was legally halted in 1978, but the county contains about 70,000-80,000 homes built before then. Many of the houses that have not been made safe are in low-income areas, such as the 49507 ZIP code.
“The challenge is that those children that are still suffering the most are in our most socioeconomic distressed parts of our community,” London said.
In the 1990s, more than 40% of the community’s children had elevated blood issues. It was at about 5% three years ago but then rose to 6%, which is why the Kent County Lead Task Force was created, London said. The rate is now 4.7%, but advocates want the rate to be 0.
LaTasha Garrett, who has a 24-year-old son who was lead poisoned at age 2, spoke during public comment before and after Kent County commissioners made the approval April 25.
“My son is legally blind in one eye, and he has mental issues. The only issue that we know that it came from is from lead,” said Garrett, a member of Parents for Healthy Homes, which is an advocacy group of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, a nonprofit that works to improve children's health and well-being by eliminating harmful housing conditions.
Tabitha Williams, another advocate for the coalition, said she believes the issue has been ignored.
“Our children are continuously being poisoned, some homes poisoning more than one family, mainly rental properties,” Williams said. “The community has been in the dark far too long. As a parent, I want to bring some light back to our community.”
London said the county has a partnership with the city of Grand Rapids to remediate about 50 homes per year. The funds designated for abetment are not being exhausted, however, because there are people unaware of the risks in their homes.
The sanitation staff will be able to provide a better understanding of how large the issue actually is. The new staff also will educate residents about steps they can take to avoid lead poisoning while waiting for abatement, such as changing cleaning and living habits.
“But there are things that really can’t be exercised until people know where the risks are in their home,” London said.
London said the county is “enormously short” of the resources it will take to absolve the risk of lead poisoning, with abatement costs at about $20,000-$25,000 per house. He said bettering the housing stock lies at the core of this issue.
“We recognize that we can’t abate our way out of this problem,” London said. “We need to have abetment, plus education, plus how do we encourage the development of more safe housing in the community to reduce the stress on the most vulnerable families, create options and, hopefully, create some pressures on those who are owning and leasing these highest risk properties to improve their properties voluntarily.”
During the summer of 2018, a workgroup convened by the Community Health Advisory Committee developed an action plan to accomplish the goals of the Lead Task Force report.
Among many other objectives, that action plan recommended three new positions at the Kent County Health Department, including two health educators to provide coordination and community communications and a sanitarian to do home inspections for lead hazards.
Upon reviewing existing staff resources and community needs, London determined adding one health educator and two sanitarians would be more effective. He said he plans to accomplish the work intended for the recommended health educator by re-assigning existing staff where possible, seeking external funding support and using future general fund allocation, if needed.
The total annual cost of salary and benefits for the positions is $153,344.
Assuming a hiring date of June 1, the county will fund $51,115 to cover the remainder of the 2019 fiscal year. The cost of operations and supplies is $35,848. The $87,000 total will come from the county’s emerging issues fund.
These positions will need to be funded by the county or from external sources for fiscal year 2020 and beyond. London said the health department has not found external financial resources to support these positions but will continue to pursue grants and other partnerships.
“I think it’s a good step toward housing and racial equity in the county and a way to start raising our standards on what is acceptable in our housing,” said Talor Musil, community organizer for the Healthy Homes Coalition.
Kent County included increased funding for lead in legislative priorities and is hoping for additional state funding.
London said the county and city are working to move a “considerable amount of money” from Medicaid to focus on lead education and outreach in the highest-risk communities.