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What Can Rochester and Toledo Teach Cleveland about Lead Paint?

Two workers remove lead paint from the outside of a house. [Jamie Hooper / Shutterstock]

In October of this year, the city of Cleveland plans to start inspecting rental properties for lead paint hazards, according to the mayor’s office. Cuyahoga County had the highest lead poisoning rate in Ohio in 2015

Two other mid-sized cities in the Great Lakes region could help show Cleveland the way. Rochester, New York, focused its efforts in places where children were most at risk. Toledo is starting to do the same.

This story is part ZIP Code: The Hidden Vital Sign, a series examining the uneven distribution of health problems across Ohio.

Rochester Tests for Lead Dust in Rentals

In both Cleveland and Rochester, about 90 percent of housing units were built before the end of the 1970s, when lead paint was banned.

More than a decade ago, a community campaign against lead poisoning pushed Rochester to update its rental inspection laws. The city’s council passed a series of resolutions addressing lead in December 2005.

“Property maintenance codes usually say there needs to be intact paint inside and outside the building,” Katrina Korfmacher, an associate professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said in an interview. “But prior to our lead law, that was not actually getting cited or enforced very strongly.”

Inspectors check for chipped and peeling paint outside and inside rentals throughout Rochester. The city also pays special attention to neighborhoods where the biggest lead hazards could be found.

“The county is instructed to share its data on children with elevated blood lead levels and where they live,” Korfmacher said. “And that goes to the city, and the city uses that to designate a high-risk area.”

A map shows Rochester’s high-risk areas for lead hazards. [City of Rochester]

Within the high-risk area, inspectors proactively do additional testing, according to Gary Kirkmire, the director of buildings and zoning for the city.

“In our high-risk area, which is about two thirds of our city, if the unit passes our visual inspection, and the unit is a single, a double or up to a five-unit building, then we’re going to do a proactive dust wipe test to make sure there’s no unseen hazards,” Kirkmire said.

That dust wipe test looks for lead paint residue around windows and floors. In the last decade, most properties have passed their inspections, according to data from the city.

“What we saw across the board in a very high rate was owners did adjust their business models to meet the expectations of the ordinance,” Kirkmire said. “They may have complained about it, but they did so.”

Key to making the Rochester plan work, according to many involved, was the community-wide effort that went beyond just code enforcement. Advocates spread the word about the risks of lead paint. The city made sure landlords knew how to keep their properties safe.

Toledo Requires Lead Inspections for Landlords

Now Toledo is starting its own effort to make homes safe from lead paint. The city passed a law last year requiring rental properties to be inspected for paint chips and dust that could contain lead.

This is an instructional video for landlords from the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department’s website. In the video, a department worker and lead inspector walk check for peeling paint and other signs of decay in and around a home.

“We’re not asking people to remove windows,” county health commissioner Eric Zgodzinski said. “We’re asking them to just keep up the walls and the paint, making sure things are kept clean, making sure the outside is painted.”

Landlords hire private inspectors, who will send a report in to the city, Zgodzinski said. He said health department staff will check up on a 10 percent sample of those units.

“So if we walk in, and they said there’s no issues with any walls or ceilings, and we come in and there hasn’t been a coat of paint on the walls for a couple years, we’re going to go, ‘It’s peeling, it’s chipping, there’s holes here. This inspection wasn’t done appropriately,’” he said.

Toledo updated its law in April to roll out its program over three years. Rental properties in neighborhoods that pose the greatest risk for poisoning will have to be inspected first.

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