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Kent County sees 30 percent increase in childhood lead exposure

Grand Rapids map
Hilary Farrell
Data: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

State data shows a 30 percent increase in childhood lead poisoning in Kent County. It’s particularly acute in Grand Rapids – where exposure levels are among the highest in the state.

"Grand Rapids, Michigan, is clearly a hot spot in Michigan when it comes to childhood lead exposure."

Paul Haan is the executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.

"In the 2015 data that was just released, Kent County comes near the top in a number of metrics. And last year was the first year in many decades that we’ve actually seen an uptick in the number of kids affected by lead." 

Haan says local exposure overwhelmingly comes down to two things – lead-based paint in homes, and lead contamination in soil.

That hasn’t changed, he says, but it doesn’t by itself explain the increase.

"We were kind of hoping that we would find some kind of anomaly or unique factor that’s contributing to this, but it seems to be the same thing.

"It seems to be concentrated in low-income kids, it seems to be concentrated overwhelmingly in certain neighborhoods, and it seems to be concentrated primarily in one and two year-olds."

[See a map of childhood lead exposure levels in Michigan here.]

State data by county puts Kent at the fourth-highest rate of childhood lead poisoning in Michigan.   

It’s especially concentrated in Grand Rapids, and on the southeast side in particular - zip code 49507 has the third-highest rate of lead poisoning in the state.

That’s more than four times higher than the Michigan average.

Haan says he thinks the Grand Rapids rental housing crunch and lack of safe, affordable housing help make the situation a perfect storm.

And he says a lot of this is solvable.

"It would be our hope that instead of using kids as lead detectors, we could find the wherewithal, the public will, to really look at housing. And to check the housing, test the housing, to make sure it’s safe before kids are exposed.

"Part of the problem with our approach currently is you know, we’re talking about kids that were exposed a year ago now. And that’s water over the dam." 

Haan says solutions need a more proactive approach, and that includes tackling exposure at the source.

The Healthy Homes Coalition and others are continuing to drill into the data in search of concrete causes.

Meanwhile, Haan says lead exposure this year in Kent County shows no sign of decreasing.

Hilary is a General Assignment and Enterprise reporter for WGVU Public Media. She joined WGVU in September 2014 after several years of experience as a local news reporter, anchor and photojournalist in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. She's also worked as a financial and business reporter and audio field producer.
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