For the second year in a row, Grand Rapids’ 49507 ZIP code took first honors in the list of ZIP codes with the most lead-poisoned children in the state of Michigan, and its lead over other ZIP codes statewide continues growing.
In 2014, there were 145 children with blood lead levels above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reference level of 5.0 micrograms per deciliter. In 2015, that number jumped an astounding 28 percent to 186. In 2016, it increased another 11 percent to 207 children. That metric is headed in the wrong direction.
Childhood lead poisoning plagues many older cities across the U.S., like Grand Rapids, but few have rates as high as the 49507 ZIP code.
Grand Rapids has a right to be concerned. Lead poisoning interferes with the neurological development of very young children, leading to irreparable brain damage. The result for our community is not just increased medical, educational, justice and corrections costs. Long-term results of this brain damage are reduced lifetime earnings of the children affected.
Childhood lead poisoning is a talent problem. A recent study looked at the expense of childhood lead poisoning in Michigan and pegged the total at $270 million annually. Even when costs associated with treating ADHD are factored in, medical costs make up less than 7 percent of the expense. Education expenses tick in at only 1 percent. Crime and justice add 25 percent of the expense. An astonishing 66 percent of the cost of childhood lead poisoning works itself out through lost wages to the children affected. That’s a loss of talent. Those are future workers whose fullest potential will never be achieved — a cost shared by employers.
That alone should make us uncomfortable. But there is more. In 2015, African-American children were lead poisoned at twice the rate of white children in the city of Grand Rapids. Two-thirds of children poisoned by lead in Kent County reside in the 49503, 49504, and 49507 ZIP codes — high-minority, high-poverty neighborhoods.
Lead poisoning is not just a measure of child health in Grand Rapids, it also is a measure of our community’s will and ability to confront inequity.
The challenge is not that we don't know the solution to the problem of lead poisoning. Those solutions are simple: Identify sources of lead (especially in children’s housing), get the lead out and make sure there is no new lead.
The challenge is assigning responsibility and paying the cost. Unlike many community problems, there is no single “right pocket” to pay for the problem of lead. Suing the paint and gasoline companies who put the lead there in the first place has proven untenable. So who carries the cost?
That challenge is one that is ripe to be solved by West Michigan innovation, assuming we care enough to prioritize and knuckle down on a problem that affects the poor and people of color in our community.
There is no immediate reward for the private sector, but there clearly is a long-term payoff as our community’s talent pool is nurtured, crime is deterred, and education and health care costs are reduced. The challenge is taking the first step. How do we raise the significant capital that will be needed to protect hundreds of Grand Rapids’ very own children? How do we take the first steps toward a more equitable start in life?
Or do we shrink in the face of such a pressing need and go back to the comfort of doing nothing new? Can we afford to do that with this ugly inequity in our own backyard?
This is one of those “hottest ZIP code” distinctions we do not want. Kids are hurting. Our entire community stands to lose.
What are we prepared to do?
Paul Haan is executive director of Health Homes Coalition of West Michigan.