All kids under age six in Minneapolis should be tested for lead in the bloodstream, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
The number of children poisoned by lead has fallen nationally and in Minnesota. But as more than 80 percent of Minneapolis homes were constructed before 1978, the year lead paint was banned, lead dust continues to find its way into toddlers’ mouths. The City Council approved state grant funding this fall to continue outreach on the issue.
A total of 147 Minneapolis kids were poisoned by lead for the first time in 2015. A city map shows more than 20 children poisoned on single blocks of Whittier, Lyndale and Kingfield between 1999-2014. At least one lead poisoning case during that period was documented in nearly every Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood. Areas with more rental housing and lower incomes are disproportionately impacted, according to city staff.
“A lot of families have never heard of it,” said Megan Curran de Nieto, director of community health programs at CLEARCorps Minnesota, a nonprofit that works to prevent lead poisoning in low-income families. “They just don’t have information about when they’re at risk. … We really try to show them in our homes how lead is everywhere.”
Curran de Nieto travels door-to-door in Minneapolis, looking for peeling paint and old porch floors where children might play. Children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to lead than adults, and they absorb lead more quickly than adults.
Curran de Nieto said she typically sees lead poisoning in young families who live in old homes and do their own home improvement work, or low-income families living in poorly-maintained rental housing.
While canvassing near Columbus & Franklin, resident Bryon Johnson leaned out a car window and said his son tested high for lead while growing up in Ohio.
“He used to chew on the windowsill,” he said.
Johnson described his son, now age 19, as “a little slow.” He said his son dropped out of school, and he’s dealt with educational problems throughout his life.
“What can I do about that?” he asked.
“That is what happens with kids with lead,” Curran de Nieto said in response. “…Unfortunately the damage is done. There are programs in the community that can help them with different ways to learn.”
Exposure to lead can cause learning difficulties, a reduced IQ and behavior problems, according to a 2015 report by the Minnesota Department of Health. Lead can also cause hypertension and kidney problems in adults, and poses a risk to children of nursing and pregnant mothers.
Lisa Smestad, the city’s manager of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes, said phasing lead out of gasoline by 1996 reduced blood lead levels. But lead paint in homes remains. She said the most common sources of lead poisoning in Minneapolis come from the window sash, the interior windowsills and painted porch floors.
Even when lead is painted over, as on a porch floor, in 10 years time it may be deteriorating again, said Curran de Nieto. She said porch windows are notoriously bad. As windows slam up or down, fine lead dust or paint chips can scatter.
Curran de Nieto watches for paint that’s detaching in a horizontal pattern. Whereas latex paint tends to detach with curved edges, striated paint is a telltale sign lead paint is underneath, she said.
Lead can also lie in the soil, generally three feet around a home foundation.
“Lead is very heavy and tends to fall fairly close to the original surface,” she said. “If they had a vegetable garden next to the foundation, we would do education about why that’s dangerous.”
Paint on stucco doesn’t chip or peel the way it does on wood, but lead paint on stucco can still cause a problem, Curran de Nieto said.
“Power sanding, sandblasting, even power washing could potentially poison a whole neighborhood,” she said. “It’s churned up into such a fine cloud of dust. …Taking a power sander to these surfaces is crazy dangerous.”
Information for do-it-yourself homeowners is available at epa.gov. Tips include covering floors with plastic sheeting, turning off forced-air heating and air conditioning, and applying water to lead-painted surfaces to prevent dust from spreading.
Curran de Nieto encourages families to ask for the lead results in blood tests during a child’s annual checkup.
“Sometimes if the lead test is under 5 [micrograms per deciliter], they will not always report it to you,” she said.
The crucial time period is 12-29 months, she said, when kids are starting to become mobile and constantly have their hands in their mouths.
“There are no outward symptoms,” Curran de Nieto said. “The only way to know is through a blood test.”
The amount of lead in blood considered acceptable in children continues to fall, and the federal government has reduced its threshold for concern from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5. Research has shown there is no safe level of exposure to lead, and public health workers are addressing cases they may not have pursued in the past.
“Their caseload is giant compared to what it used to be,” Curran de Nieto said.
Nutrition can play a role in lead poisoning as well. Children who are eating well and eating frequently have an extra layer of defense, Curran de Nieto said.
“Kids that suffer chronic hunger can have faster uptakes of lead and immediately start metabolizing it,” she said.
A 2008 city report said child lead poisoning has been linked to delinquency, hyperactivity and aggression, as well as anti-social, criminal and violent behaviors.
Mayor Betsy Hodges referenced the impact of lead poisoning on teenage behavior during a panel discussion last summer with U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
“This is important for the health of your entire community,” she said. “…It does have an impact on the education system that people are trying so hard to have a positive impact on, and the opportunity gaps that young people face between white kids and kids of color.”
School staff in Minneapolis take steps to ensure lead does not contaminate the students’ water supply. Water in about 40 schools has lead levels up to 400 parts per billion (water in Flint, Mich. tested in excess of 13,000 parts per billion), which prompts a daily “flushing” process. Staff at schools including Armatage, Anthony, Bryn Mawr, Kenny, Kenwood, Lake Harriet Upper, Ramsey, Lyndale, Washburn, Southwest and Windom turn on the taps and run water for 10 minutes each morning before students arrive. They flush out water standing in the plumbing system that can absorb lead overnight and on weekends.
Lead pipes were used in plumbing before 1930, according to the city, and service lines connecting the city water main and household pipes are the responsibility of each property owner. To find out whether a service line is lead, contact the Minneapolis Public Works Utility Connections office at 673-2451.
“Since Flint happened, we’ve been getting a lot more queries about water,” Smestad said. “Minneapolis water quality is good. I’ve seen one high sample in 18 years of doing this work. It’s just not the source. … It’s the paint.”
Hodges said last summer that she hopes some good can come out of Flint’s national spotlight.
“This is a moment in which people’s eyes have been turned to the perils of lead poisoning,” she said. “…There are a lot of people in urban areas living in very old homes at all income levels who have or are going to face this issue.”
Free lead screenings for pregnant women and children ages six and under:
Oct. 21, 4:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at Ramsgate Apartments, 421 Van Buren Ave. N. in Hopkins
Oct. 25, 5 p.m.-7 p.m. at North Regional Library, 1315 N. Lowry Ave. in Minneapolis
Nov. 3, 4 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at Broad Moor Apartments, 635 Prairie Center Dr. in Eden Prairie
Lead Hazard Reduction Grant Program
— Helps homeowners and landlords cover the cost of making properties lead safe
— Replaces lead painted windows
— Program available through city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County
For more information on local lead resources, visit minneapolismn.gov/health/homes.