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Cleveland coalition says city will be ‘lead safe’ within the next decade


Posted January 22, 2019
2:53 pm


By Rachel Dissell and Brie Zeltner in The Plain Dealer on 01/22/2019. 

CLEVELAND, Ohio-- Cleveland officials and members of local philanthropic, healthcare, environmental and educational organizations said Tuesday they will work together to create a “lead safe” Cleveland by drastically reducing the number of children exposed to the toxin.

The newly-announced coalition did not commit to a specific timeline for its work, what its measure of success might be, how much it will cost or who will pay for it.

In announcing the “Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition," Mt. Sinai Healthcare Foundation President Mitchell Balk, representing the eight philanthropic organizations that have partnered with the city, said the plan “will result in a significant reduction” in the number of children with lead in their blood in Cleveland.

“Our aim is to reduce lead exposure in both rental properties and owner-occupied homes,” said Balk. “Lead Safe Cleveland is rolling up its sleeves, ready to get the job done.”

The coalition includes 19 member organizations and will get support from 12 community partners. See the full list here or at the bottom of this story.

Mayor Frank Jackson said that many organizations in the city have been working for years to make a difference in this area but have not had as large an impact because there was not enough collaboration. “I believe we will get it done,” Jackson said.

“Should it have happened 10 years ago, probably so. Should it have happened 50 years ago, probably so,” Jackson said. “So now here we are.”

Timeline to come, city says

Jackson and other officials said that specific goals and a timeline will be up to the work of coalition committees, which will include community engagement, resources and development, and government and policy.

The group says it is using the success of Rochester, New York in reducing lead poisoning among children in Monroe County by 85 percent over about a decade as a benchmark. That city also used a broad coalition of public and private supporters to address its problem, which included the passage of a law that required all rental housing to be inspected for deteriorating paint before a tenant could move in.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, in interviews after the announcement, said that while the coalition does not have a specific timeline in mind yet, he was comfortable saying that within ten years he’d like to see no Cleveland children poisoned above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the threshold for public health action set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The coalition, which has been meeting for the past 10 months, also committed to hosting a “Lead Safe Summit.” Nancy Mendez, vice president of community impact at United Way Greater Cleveland, which will organize the summit, said it will be held in 2019. Coalition officials have not set a date yet.

Councilman Blaine Griffin acknowledged that lead summits were convened in the past which did not accomplish their goals.

“History has its eyes on us", Griffin said, in a reference to the musical Hamilton, and added this is “our shot” to get it right.

The group also said it intended to create a “Lead Safe Home” fund to assist property owners with controlling lead hazards.

Griffin said a public-private supported lead-safe home fund is "an opportunity to work with landlords, not in opposition to them,” in order to clean up lead in city rentals.

Rochester’s strategy also included such supports, including grants and low-interest loans to encourage landlords to participate.

“Lead safe," not lead-free

Officials said they could not promise that no child will be poisoned by the toxin here, as more than 97 percent of homes in Cleveland were built before 1976 and, therefore, likely contain lead paint, which was officially banned from sale in 1978.

The coalition also is firmly focused on a “lead safe” standard rather than complete abatement or removal of lead from Cleveland homes.

“The idea that full abatement as the answer for everything in Cleveland would get us nowhere,” said Kelley. “We would fail.”

The group is also aiming for some type of “universal" testing standard, though it’s unclear what that will be. Recent studies by Case Western Reserve University showed that more than 15 percent of Cleveland public school kindergartners had no recorded test for lead and only 20 percent of children eligible for Medicaid were screened at ages 1 and 2-years old as recommended.

Local health care institutions committed to adopting the American Academy of Pediatrics screening standard, which calls for all children to be tested by their first birthday. University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital has already started to identify barriers to screening -- such as having pediatric phlebotomists available in doctor’s office and making lab facilities more accessible to families, said Patti DePompei, president of UH Rainbow.

No level of lead exposure is considered safe for young children. The toxin can cause irreversible damage to a developing brain and lead to health, behavioral and learning issues, even at low levels of exposure.

Coalition members vowed to address the problem with urgency, though they also asked for the patience to do the work in a sustainable and equitable way that didn’t have unintended consequences.

Environmental Health Watch Executive Director Kim Foreman said for her that includes spending time in the community developing authentic relationships and partnerships and building trust.

“We can’t become sensitized and comfortable with analyzing maps, percentages, data points, figures," she said. “We can’t keep talking about racial equity, health disparities, or the conditions of people who are impacted.”

Current laws could be reworked

Griffin, during the announcement in the City Hall Rotunda, said legislation would be part of the strategy.

The city’s current ordinance governing lead hazards could be updated, he said. In an interview following the announcement, Griffin and other leaders did not say specifically whether any new ordinances would be introduced or when that might happen.

The centerpiece of Rochester’s effort was a 2006 ordinance that required landlords to pass a visual inspection for peeling paint before their units could be rented. The law was later amended, based on collected data, to focus on one-and-two unit structures, where more than 90 percent of children were exposed to lead.

City officials often have cited worries that a broad standard like that here in Cleveland, a much bigger but also impoverished city, might lead to families being displaced or landlords abandoning their rentals.

“I don’t think anybody in this community wants to make a trade-off between lead safe housing and housing stability,” said Daniel Cohn, vice president of strategy at Mt. Sinai, who helped organize the trip to New York in November that included 30 coalition partners.

Rochester’s coalition had that worry, too, said Cohn.

Leaders there agreed to take the risk of passing the ordinance but promised to closely evaluate the impact on housing and if fears were realized, to walk away from the new law, Cohn said.

Rochester saw no increase in displacement or abandonment, he said.

Local advocates react

Members of CLASH -Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing —which recently said it was gearing up to propose a lead-safe ballot initiative, said Tuesday’s pledges “fall short and fail to recognize the urgency and severity of the issue.”

The new Lead Safe Cleveland coalition promised an open process and invited any group that genuinely cared about solving the problem to join in the effort it announced.

CLASH, though, said anything short of a commitment to legislation that will require owners of pre-1978 rental properties to verify that their units are “lead safe” will not prevent more children from being poisoned or protect tenants from retaliation, displacement or further adverse health outcomes.

Measuring progress

Cleveland officials have pointed out that progress in reducing lead poisoning has already been made.

Over the past 20 years, the numbers of children poisoned have dropped dramatically nationwide, and locally, too. But Cleveland has remained among the worst in the county, with young children here poisoned at four times the national average.

The city, in recent years, has hired more health inspectors and started a rental inspection unit that officials say will make homes healthier and safer for tenants. The inspections are primarily in rentals registered with the city, and whose owners voluntarily reply to a letter to set an inspection. The process has netted about 1,000 code violations with more than 10,000 units inspected. The has tested about 1,000 units for lead dust and found hazardous levels in 64, half of which have been corrected.

Many of these changes came after The Plain Dealer in 2015 launched its Toxic Neglect series, an effort to examine Cleveland’s legacy of lead poisoning and what might be done to prevent another generation of children from harm.

The investigation found that city health officials often failed to inspect homes that might have poisoned children. When the city did inspect and found hazardous levels of lead, it often failed to force property owners to fix the problem.

The state, which has ultimate authority to prevent lead poisoning, was lax in making sure Cleveland, and other cities, followed Ohio law to post warning signs on homes with hazards.

Last year, following a lawsuit filed by The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, a court also ordered Cleveland to placard any home currently known to be a lead hazard that had not been repaired. Legal Aid is a community partner for the effort and already takes referrals to help low-income families that might be displaced because a child is lead poisoned. Colleen Cotter, who runs the non-profit law firm said Legal Aid looks forward to working with others towards a “solution that is achievable and sustainable and will indeed change lives.”

Not currently among coalition or community partners are groups representing Cleveland’s landlords, who must be included for any solution to work, the partners said.

Case Western Reserve University is looking to help the coalition identify landlords who might want to be part of the effort and to help identify what assistance they might need in making their properties “lead safe” for children.

“We know there are many landlords not aware or who would like to alleviate the issue but really don’t have resources to do that,” Tania Menesse, Cleveland director of Community Development said.