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In Cuyahoga County, Lead Poisoning Often Overlaps with Poverty

Lamiot / Wikimedia Commons

Our series, Lead: Crisis Abandoned, begis with a report on Cuyahoga County's dwindling pool of money for fixing contaminated homes

Next, a look at the relationship between lead poisoning and neighborhood. Lead contamination is not evenly distributed across Northeast Ohio. In some neighborhoods, virtually no children are poisoned. But there are lead poisoning hotspots. Many of these areas are also hotspots for other challenges to people’s health and well-being.

ideastream’s Nick Castele has mapped out county data showing how these concerns overlap. Nick, what did you find?

CASTELE: What I saw in Cuyahoga County is that the neighborhoods with higher lead poisoning rates also tend to be communities with higher rates of poverty. And some of these neighborhoods also have higher rates of other health problems, like infant mortality. They’re typically concentrated in the city of Cleveland, especially on the east and near west sides, and in inner-ring suburbs like East Cleveland.

GANZER: Let’s pick this apart a little bit. Why is lead poisoning more prevalent in some places, not in others?

CASTELE: Lead poisoning is often tied to houses. In particular, older houses that were built before lead paint was banned. So houses built before 1978 are considered a lead risk. And in Cuyahoga County, that’s most houses.

GANZER: So older houses are a greater risk for lead contamination. You mentioned there’s an association between lead poisoning and other demographics—could you explain that?

CASTELE: Sure. The state of Ohio developed a model to predict where lead poisoning will be most prevalent. The idea is to better target resources to areas that really need them. So this model considers age of housing, like we talked about, but it also takes into account poverty and the percent of residents who are African-American, among several other variables.

GANZER: Why does this model look at race? What does race have to do with lead poisoning?

CASTELE: There’s no direct link between the two, or tie between the two, but in Ohio and elsewhere in the country there’s an overlap that a lot of experts say is important to acknowledge. Here’s Wornie Reed. He directs the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech. He’s worked on lead poisoning issues for many years.

REED: “Lead is associated with the environment and it’s only incidentally associated with race…And it's associated with race because because blacks live in the inner cities more often than whites—that is, proportionally speaking…Blacks tend to live in these houses that were built a long time ago.”

GANZER: So just to be clear, children regardless of race, if they’re living in the same environment, would probably face the same risk of lead poisoning?

CASTELE: Right. This is about the environment. Now, researchers say there are historical reasons many low-income people and people of color are more likely to live in houses with grater lead risks, in urban areas. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University has been pointing to historical forms of housing discrimination—like the denial of mortgage loans—as offering us a way to understand patterns in community health. They say if you don’t have resources, it’s harder to deal with these health problems. Here’s Charles Noble from the Kirwan Institute.

NOBLE: "These effects occur generationally. And so you have folks that are trapped in cycles of poverty and cycles of disinvestment…And so if we want to fix lead poisoning, I think definitely one of the ways is to specifically get into the houses that are affected by this. But it’s also to take a step out of the houses and look at the health of the community."

CASTELE: And county officials and health researchers are listening to this, and they’re thinking about history, poverty and place when they talk about health. They’re seeing these issues overlapping in the same neighborhoods, which makes the burden on families all the more challenging.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.