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Lead Safe Cleveland – Building The Way Healthier Future

Lead poisoning deeply impacts too many of Ohio’s youngest children and families and demands our priority. Despite this unequivocal truth, we certainly could not have anticipated releasing this report as we continue to normalize the trauma and crisis to which COVID-19 has conditioned us over the past several months. Upon reflection on the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s child care system, the National Association for the Education of the Young Children states, “our nation’s early childhood education programs have been navigating structural cracks and financial cliffs for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these cracks and cliffs unavoidable, putting our programs into free fall. If our economy is to recover, it will require a reimagined approach to financing and structuring the systems that support high-quality child care.” 

If our child care programs are in free fall, one may ask why this work continues—why do we ask you to consider how to prevent lead poisoning in child care programs that were not financially stable prior to the pandemic and for which there are seemingly little to no new state resources that could support a policy change? How do we share this rich body of policy research on lead in child care amid a global pandemic and civil unrest in our local communities, state and nation?

As early childhood advocates, we are certainly not strangers to the real and acute barriers to progress, however, our response is simple—how can we not?

Lead poisoning is a public health crisis. Even before the global pandemic of COVID-19 devastated our state and nation, lead poisoning was having a devastating impact on young children and families in Ohio. The primary source of lead exposure among children in Ohio is deteriorated lead-based paint (dust). Lead poisoning can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, speech and hearing problems, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and preterm birth. At very high levels, lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma, and death. 

We know that houses, public buildings, and commercial buildings built before 1978 have a high likelihood of containing a lead paint hazard. When we consider the scope of the potential problem with this lens, we find that 42% of all housing units in Ohio were built prior to then. In 2016, 3% of the 0-5-year-olds tested in Ohio had confirmed blood levels of 5 μg/dL (micrograms per deciliter) or greater. There is no safe level of lead in blood but this elevated level triggers a public health response to lead poisoning. The 3% incidence number, however, is merely a snapshot of the problem because fewer than 40% of our children who are most at-risk, those living at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, were even tested.1 

A 2016 Cleveland Plain Dealer article cited that “children tested in Cleveland had a higher rate of lead poisoning than children tested in Flint, Michigan during the height of its lead poisoning crisis.” For every 1,000 children in Cuyahoga County, there are 24.6 cases of lead exposure as compared statewide to 7.8 per thousand. This equates to 2,126 children living in Cuyahoga County with elevated lead levels.

Lead poisoning is an equity issue.