Wyandotte County faces the highest risks in Kansas for childhood lead exposure, with health officials estimating nearly 1,500 children suffered from lead poisoning in 2016.
The problem persists in contaminated homes where almost invisible lead coatings are ingested by children. Parents may not even know about elevated blood lead levels until the effects are irreversible, when it’s too late to stop lifelong brain damage.
Lead “hot spots” across the country generally house more low-income families in both rural and metropolitan areas, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But after Wyandotte County lost federal funding in 2012, HUD officials said lead poisoning prevention programs like Kansas Healthy Homes and Lead Safe KCK dissolved.
Now after several years of lead poisoning prevention set on the back burner, Wyandotte County may finally be able to tackle the epidemic. The county has received a $1.65 million grant from HUD. Kansas City, Mo., which has received the grant multiple times, will receive $2.9 million.
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The funds are awarded to 48 state and local government agencies nationwide. A HUD news release said the grant will target communities where scarce resources exist to audit homes with lead-based paint.
This is huge for Wyandotte County, said epidemiologist Kari Neill, communicable disease control manager for the Wyandotte County Health Department.
“With this grant, we’ll be able to hire a full-time lead poisoning prevention specialist,” Neill said. “What we really want is prevention, removing lead hazards from the children’s environment, and education for their families.”
After Lead Safe KCK slowly died out, Neill said there has not been a staff person devoted to lead the work full-time in Wyandotte County. With the HUD grant, the new specialist will prioritize screening and testing children, as well as reducing lead exposure in high-risk areas.
“We try to help families identify potential sources of lead and provide action steps they can take,” Neill said.
That can mean regular cleaning, paying attention to the products children use that might contain lead, more hand washing and covering bare soil in yards where they might also be exposed.
Shantae Goodloe, public affairs specialist for HUD, said Wyandotte County will use the grant to address lead hazards in 75 housing units and provide safer homes for vulnerable low-income families with children. Wyandotte County will partner with the Unified Government Public Health Department, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Healthy Environment Coalition.
Eligible families can enroll their housing in the program. First their homes will be audited for lead-based paint hazards. Children under 6 will then go through blood tests and be referred to a clinic if they have a lead blood level above certain levels. The funds will also pay to strip away lead-based paint, test the homes a final time for clearance and support training programs for workers on techniques for lead hazard control.
The grant for Kansas City, Mo., will transform 156 housing units, partnering with Westside Housing Inc.; Mustardseed Inc.; the City of St. Joseph, Mo. Health Department; and Children’s Mercy.
A Reuter’s 2016 investigation listed thousands of U.S areas, including St. Joseph, where exploding lead poisoning rates were even higher than Flint, Mich. Last year, Reuters discovered that at least 120 children were poisoned in St. Joseph since 2010, classifying the area as one of the most toxic Missouri neighborhoods. Even a local pediatrician’s children were poisoned.
St. Joseph is now preparing for a “rehab partnership” with Kansas City’s health department, said Scott Graybill, the program manager for Lead Safe KC. The city will recruit local families in St. Joseph and have them fill out a health department application, pay for testing and remediation.
Despite a focus on lead paint hazard removal, medical treatment costs are not covered by the grant, according to Shannon Steinbauer, former state director for Kansas Healthy Homes Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Steinbauer now directs the Lead and Healthy Homes Grant Program under HUD.
After Wyandotte County lost funds in 2012, she said Kansas poisoning cases were treated sporadically.
“Our prevention program was highly dependent on federal funding,” Steinbauer said. “Our grant funding was zeroed out at the federal level, which hurt multiple cities dependent on that. That was our case management prevention program that could follow and monitor kids, get them treatment.”
The program lacked support from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Steinbauer said.
Steinbauer said an EPA grant is one of the limited resources in Kansas. The grant helps train workers, allows families to eliminate lead paint hazards and get their children tested.
With Children’s Mercy so close across the state line, Steinbauer said since 2012 the hospital has been picking up the pieces of case management that Kansas couldn’t handle.
Children’s Mercy toxicologist Adam Algren typically works with Kansas children’s primary care providers. Children’s Mercy’s environmental health division often travels to patient’s homes in Kansas and investigates sources of lead. But he said that Wyandotte County’s lack of resources also puts Children’s Mercy in a bind.
“You really need to get out and do a home assessment,” Algren said. “Is there peeling paint in the home? Does that need to be remediated? Are they using some traditional ethnic pottery that’s a source of the lead? Are there certain toys with lead paint in them?”