As a program manager at the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bloomberg Fellow Jennifer Spiller supports families that have a child with asthma or lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning remains a serious public health problem, in spite of ongoing efforts to rid homes, schools and water supplies of the dangerous substance. Today, an estimated 1.2 million children in the U.S. have elevated blood lead levels. Spiller and her coworkers evaluate homes to find the sources of lead that put children at risk.
We spoke with Jennifer about those environmental assessments, what comes out of them and the Flint water crisis.
When the Healthy Homes Coalition does a home assessment for lead, what are you looking for?
The first thing we do is ask how old the house is. Our ZIP code  has the highest number of lead-poisoned children in Michigan, in part because the homes around here are older and were built before lead paint was banned in 1978.
We look for chipping paint, which can create lead dust and is how most kids get lead poisoning. There’s a misconception that children get lead poisoning from eating paint chips directly. Sometimes that happens, but more often it’s from the dust that gets on their hands and then, through natural hand-to-mouth-behaviors, they end up eating the lead.
Soil is also a common cause of lead poisoning. We look for bare soil around the yard because it could have lead from exterior paint chips or from car exhaust when we used to put lead in gasoline. Kids can pick up lead when they play outside, or it can be tracked inside the home on shoes or pets’ feet.
Again, those hand-to-mouth behaviors play a part. Kids ages zero to five years old are most susceptible to lead poisoning because they often put their hands in their mouths. They're at a very vulnerable stage in their development, so lead impacts them more seriously than if they were older.
Once you identify a lead hazard, how do you help families manage it?
We start by showing people how to do lead-safe cleaning, which mostly entails using soapy water to remove lead from surfaces where children are playing. It might not eliminate the source of lead, but it’s a way to reduce the exposure until we can get a more permanent solution in place.
For chipping paint, we help people get those surfaces repaired. We refer them to our city’s Get the Lead Out! home repair program, which replaces old windows and does repainting using lead-safe work practices.
If we find lead in soil, we provide track mats to catch the lead before it comes in the home and suggest taking off shoes at the door. Ideally, the affected soil should be covered with grass or wood chips to reduce exposure, but if the lead content is higher than 5,000 parts per million, the recommendation is to remove the top six inches of soil and replace it with new soil or concrete. Again, our city’s home repair program is able to help.
We also work with people on how to engage their landlord about making necessary repairs.
You’re about 100 miles from Flint, Michigan. How did that city’s water crisis affect your work?
When I started working at Healthy Homes in 2012, well before the Flint water crisis, people were really surprised to hear that lead poisoning still occurred.
But after the water crisis broke out, all of a sudden everyone was talking about lead poisoning. Since then, we’ve been the go-to organization in West Michigan for people with questions about lead. We’ve had a surge in people calling about getting their homes tested, and we’ve been able to connect them to the resources they need.