Cleveland Health Director Gets An Earful From City Council Over Lead Crisis

Cleveland Director of Public Health Merle Gordon and the city face criticism during a Jan. 28, 2019, meeting over inaction in dealing with the city's lead crisis.
Cleveland Director of Public Health Merle Gordon during a Jan. 28, 2019, Health and Human Services Committee meeting. Councilmembers at the meeting criticized the city for its inaction on the city's lead crisis. [Matt Richmond / ideastream]
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City Council President Kevin Kelley sat in on Monday’s health committee meeting and declared council’s position on long-delayed lead cleanup in Cleveland.

“To me it’s significant that we are sitting here, and this is a priority of council, and we’ve drawn a line in the sand. We’ve declared this is our priority,” said Kelley.

A week ago, the city announced plans for a new collaboration called Lead Safe Cleveland. Kelley wants to see the group set a goal of protecting all Cleveland kids from lead poisoning by 2028.

Cleveland Director of Public Health Merle R. Gordon appeared in front of the council committee for what was supposed to be an overview of her department’s agenda for 2019.

But the questions from councilmembers focused on one issue: lead. Gordon attempted to keep the focus on all the work her department does.

“In terms of lead, and I can’t speak about lead in isolation of everything else we do at the health department, because it’s so, to us, intertwined,” said Gordon.

Gordon added that the city gets 380 to 400 schoolchildren with elevated lead levels referred to them by the state health department every year. And it costs on average $11,600 per home remediation.

There’s not enough money or resources to cover all that need, said Gordon.

But for several members of the committee, her answers weren’t enough.

Ward 1 Councilman Joe Jones, also sitting in on the meeting, brought up the possibility of staffing changes at city hall, without calling for a new public health director.

“I believe that we need to have people that are passionate about this issue, who are committed about it, dedicated, working in city hall to work on that issue,” said Jones. “Because if council takes on that issue, we should take it on looking at the full scope of everything.

The Lead Safe Cleveland group has five committees set up to address lead issues, as well as philanthropic support from the Mt. Sinai Foundation, the Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation. It will host a Lead Safe Summit and create a Lead Safe Home Fund.

A recent Case Western Reserve University study found elevated lead levels among 16.7 percent  of Cleveland’s school-age children born in 2012 who have been tested.

The Health and Human Services Committee also plans to take up legislation on lead cleanup.

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