Looking At Lead Poisoning After Flint And Sebring

Intensive cleaning, especially around windows and doors, important to managing lead dust. (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

The issue of lead poisoning has been a part of a national conversation on public health and infrastructure in the last year.  Cases of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, and Sebring, Ohio, prompted public outcry and political action. 

But last year ideastream and also The Plain Dealer took deep dives into lead in Northeast Ohio homes, and how lead poisoning affects Ohio families. 

To check up on lead issues I spoke this week to John Sobolewski, deputy director in environmental public health for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.  I began by asking if the consciousness surrounding lead issues have been raised in the last year:

SOBOLEWSKI: “You know Flint certainly was the starting point for the national media, it was picked up on locally, and I think certainly those efforts have brought attention to a very important pediatric public health issue.”

GANZER: “Earlier this year some data showed a very slight increase in child lead poisoning from 2013-2014. Are the new numbers out yet?”

SOBOLEWSKI: “The new numbers are not out, I checked this morning.  The Ohio Department of Health typically puts out the preceding year’s numbers in late September, early October.  Those have not been published at this point in time.  And the increases you referred to between 2013 and 2014, they were slight in some categories, but they were an increase.  And we’ve seen quite a decline since we started tracking numbers in the mid- to late-nineties, I mean we’ve had a tremendous decrease in the number of children with lead poisoning.  Certainly we’re not where we want to be because each year we still have more than two thousand children throughout Cuyahoga County that have elevated blood-lead levels and that’s certainly not acceptable.”

GANZER: “Last year there was much worry about federal HUD money for lead remediation.  Is money still one of the biggest issues in combatting this problem?”

SOBOLEWSKI: “Capacity is always an issue, and capacity is related to money.  I know HUD has been very supportive and recently I believe it was last week, there was an announcement made that Summit County—which I consider us all in Northeast Ohio to be facing the same issues—received a federal grant from HUD in the neighborhood of close to $3 million.  So Summit County’s received funding, I know Lorain County has received funding, Cuyahoga County’s received funding, the city of Cleveland’s received funding, so through the federal government in terms of dollars to remediate housing they’ve certainly supported that effort. Where the dollars are really lacking is in the day-to-day capacity to actually go out and prevent lead poisoning, that’s where we have holes in the system.  And in addition, the Cleveland Foundation has stepped up in the last year, and they’re supporting an initiative in greater University Circle area, primarily in Hough and Glenville,  serving dual-aims of infant mortality and also lead poisoning prevention.  Because those are two neighborhoods with disproportionately share a large burden of both high infant mortality rates and large numbers of children with lead poisoning.”

GANZER: “From your position, you’re dealing with this every single day.  And there is a lot of especially  national media attention when there is a case like Flint, or Sebring, that raises this to a larger level.  But do you get frustrated, maybe, that there isn’t more constant attention on something that so many people in our region are dealing with?”

SOBOLEWSKI: “Well, that’s always something.  We want to be at the forefront, we want to solve the problem, and 2000 children per year are still a lot of kids with elevated blood-lead [levels.] And we often said, if we had other diseases that had the same rates of affecting children, I think there would be widespread outrage.  And in a very concentrated area we have very high numbers.  So nationally we’re down to about half a percent in terms of children with elevated blood-lead [levels.]  And then we get into Cuyahoga County as a whole we’re talking about 10 percent.  But then we get into specific neighborhoods where we’re talking 25 percent of the children who are tested have high lead levels, and if you get to smaller areas within those neighborhoods I would suspect the numbers are even higher.  So it’s a hyper-localized instance where we have children with lead poisoning and that’s part of the issue, too, that it’s not uniform.  It’s not uniform across the area.  It’s concentrated in areas where we have high-risk, old housing, high poverty.  And the good thing is we know where these areas are, we know where to put the resources, it’s a question of getting those resources into those specific areas to make a difference in improving those health outcomes.”

John Sobolewski is with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. 

You can hear more about the issue of lead in Northeast Ohio Friday at 12:30 during a forum from the City Club of Cleveland, broadcast on WCPN. 

Find all of ideastream’s Be Well coverage on lead.

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