Fixing Lead Paint in Homes Can be a Financial Reach for Families

Kareemah Lumpkin, left, talks with another attendee at a meeting for grant recipients. (Sarah Jane Tribble / ideastream)
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Lead poisoning is an unseen but destructive health problem in Northeast Ohio, and for the first time, Cuyahoga County did not win a federal grant to make contaminated homes safe again. In the next part of our Be Well series, Lead: Crisis Abandoned, ideastream's Nick Castele reports local officials are trying to stretch their remaining money—and parents of lead poisoned children are looking for other options.

When doctors tested Kareemah Lumpkin's sons for lead, their results came back with bad news. The levels of lead in their blood far exceeded the minimum for poisoning.

She says the source of her sons' poisoning was lead paint in their Shaker Heights home. As in many old houses, the greatest risk is around windows and doors.

In her  kitchen, she opens a now-renovated window and explains how things used to be.

"When you opened up a window, all the pieces of paint would just fall. It would just fall,” Lumpkin says. “So what I'd have to do is, I used to do Clorox wipes, and every time I’d open the window, I would just take a Clorox wipe and wipe this out."

The diagnosis has changed how she parents her two boys. She prepares meals high in iron, with lots of leafy vegetables and dairy—in an effort to counteract the poisoning.

And while her sons' lead levels have fallen, research shows the effects can linger into adulthood. Lumpkin says she sees it in her kids.

“I asked my oldest son, like, ‘Why can't you sit down?’ And he said, ‘Cause my brain won't stop moving.’ And I'm like, ‘Really?’ And he's like, ‘Yeah, my brain tells my legs to walk,’” Lumpkin says. “And that was so amazing that he was actually able to put it in words for me. he’s only four.”

Cuyahoga County approved Lumpkin for a federally-funded grant to make her home safe from lead. The county says the average cost of work is about $7,300.

This year, Lumpkin packed up her things for a few days, while contractors did work on her garage, and replaced windows and doors in her house.

“I got two new doors,” she says, “A whole side of the garage wall, and a window for the garage…Oh! Windows in the hallway, I got windows in my hallways, too.”

But now, the county's grant money is running out. And the city of Cleveland hasn't won a grant for lead remediation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in several years.

To be sure, the city and county have made progress against lead, bringing down poisoning rates. From 2004 to 2012, the share of children in Cuyahoga County who test for elevated blood-lead levels has fallen from 35 percent to 11 percent.

Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have used millions of dollars in HUD lead remediation money to make 5,000 housing units safe. Still, that’s only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of units in the metro area old enough to be a lead risk.

There are some low-interest loans available to help with lead remediation, but the pool of free money has dwindled.

Cleveland's assistant director for community development, Michael Cosgrove, says now, the city’s lead program can afford only to fix houses where children have been seriously poisoned.

“Out of the children that we could potentially treat if we had the lead hazard demonstration grant or the control grant, it’s a small percentage,” Cosgrove says. “It’s the worst of the worst.”

In Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhood on the city's west side, nearly one in four children tested meet at least the minimum threshold for lead poisoning.

Jasmine Malave’s son, Jacob, is one of them. He's four years old. We sit down in the front yard of their family home, where she lives with her grandparents.

“We have old paint around our windows on the inside. And then we had tore up our old rug we had in our living room. And it's wooden floors, so it had spots of old, old paint from years,” she says. “And he was a baby, he crawled around, he picked up stuff, he put it in his mouth.”

Money is tight for Malave, who turns 20 this year and also has a one-year-old daughter. She recently bought a car so she can drive to her job at a factory.

“It's still hard, because my kids need stuff all the time. My daughter, like, I buy her diapers, and I turn around, she needs diapers the next week already. Her milk,” Malave says. “It's kind of hard, and I'm the only one basically helping around here. I try to help my grandma as much as I can with her bills.”

Malave says she'd like to find a new home that's already lead safe. She says her daughter's lead levels are starting to rise. 

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