ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Reaching out to prevent lead poisoning

This editorial was originally published May 2 in the South Bend Tribune. 

It’s the sort of problem that anyone who’s been paying attention to this community’s lead poisoning problem among children might not have imagined.

The grant money to reduce contamination from lead-based paint in a number of South Bend households — funding that advocates have been fighting for — is there. But the families who need such help, aren’t.

As reported in a recent Tribune story, $3 million in grant money is practically untouched, with just a small number of families enrolled in a program that officials hoped would help 100 households.

And the number of children tested for lead in their blood dropped by a third last year, with inspections performed by the health department decreasing by 40%.

Advocates for lead prevention attribute the problem to the pandemic. They note that pediatric immunizations also declined, with many families concerned about the safety of going out for such wellness care. But with the community edging closer to emerging from COVID-19, they say they plan to redouble their efforts to prevent lead poisoning.

“Those of us who provide these kinds of services need to be standing at the ready,” said Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, president of the St. Joseph County Board of Health.

At a news conference on Thursday, city, county and community leaders urged residents to seek help dealing with lead contamination in their homes. The event took place in a census tract where more than a third of all children tested between 2005 and 2015 had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Health officials believe most lead poisoning in South Bend is linked to lead-based paint in older homes; the vast majority of the city’s housing was built before 1978, when the government banned lead paint.

It’s good that area leaders have pledged to refocus their efforts. The low application rate points to the need to raise awareness and reach families.

To that end, the city must ensure that applying for the program is accessible, not intimidating. Given that most of the 30 applications received were incomplete, withdrawn or ineligible, there’s clearly room for improvement, either through providing help to applicants or easing the process itself.

And the city must step up and do all it can for renters who need help but fear retaliation from their landlords.

There’s no time to waste, either, as some of the grant money is set to expire at the end of the year, the rest in late summer 2022.

For several years, lead prevention advocates have urged elected officials and other leaders to make lead poisoning among children a priority. The past year has proven that while money is critical to that goal, it’s about more than that. Prioritizing lead prevention in this community also involves coordination and communication to get help to the people who most need it.

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