Battle Creek

Lead abatement program assists Calhoun County residents free of charge for low-income residents

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Chelsea Potier and her husband decided to purchase an older home on Fremont Avenue in 2018 because of the opportunity it would give her to be a stay-at-home mom.

They were aware that the home, built in 1915, likely had lead in the backyard “because of its age, but it had also been very well-maintained,” says Chelsea Potier.

Still, their children, Aveline, now 4, and Melina, now age 2, are not allowed to play in the backyard because of concerns about possible lead contamination. Around the one-year anniversary of moving into the house, Aveline, or Avi as her family calls her, was diagnosed as developmentally delayed and not long after that her parents had her tested for elevated lead levels.

Aveline Potier, 4, left, and her sister Melina, 2, stand next to a window that was recently replaced In their family’s home.“She was diagnosed with lead poisoning,” Potier says. “We found out that she had elevated lead levels in May 2019. She was diagnosed as developmentally delayed before we found out that she had elevated lead levels. We don’t think her developmental delays were caused by the lead, but it probably wasn’t helped.”

The lead testing was done as part of the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program through the Calhoun County Health Department. Potier’s plans to be a stay-at-home mom were fast-tracked because of the work that would be required to take care of her oldest daughter’s increasing medical and developmental needs. The family applied for both of their girls to go on Medicaid.

In order to qualify for the lead abatement program, there must be a child under the age of 19 and on Medicaid living in the home or a woman who is pregnant and on Medicaid living in the home. Priority is given to children under the age of 6.

What could have been a daunting and complicated process was made easier because the WIC office put the family in contact with everyone they needed to talk with.

“They’re the ones that gave me all the resources I needed,” Potier says. “There was a woman who came over to help me fill out the initial paperwork. We applied for Medicaid for the girls. It’s based on income and if you're on Medicaid they take care of everything. The girls qualified for it.

“I really feel like the WIC office put me on the right track for everything. They reached out to me.”

Fred Potier stands in the backyard of his family home where some tilling and landscaping was done during recent lead abatement work.The Potiers are among 100 families in Battle Creek and Calhoun County that have received assistance through the Lead Safe Program, a $1.5 million lead abatement grant that began in 2017. It is funded by Medicaid and managed by the Michigan's Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) administered by the City of Battle Creek, says Shawna Gamble, Housing Grant Specialist with the city’s Community Development department.

Gamble says, “In partnership with Community Action Agency of South-Central Michigan, the Lead Safe Program provides lead-abatement and/or interim controls in qualified residences free of charge to the resident or the property owner and serves all of Calhoun County.

“The first year of the grant we did a lot of cold outreach to families in areas determined to be at high-risk.”

According to information in a U.S. Census report, those areas included the cities of Albion, Battle Creek, and Marshall. A partnership with the county’s Health Department streamlined the process of getting in touch with families who had children under the age of 5 with high lead levels.

The Potier’s home on Fremont Street benefited from a county lead abatement program.“If a child goes into the pediatrician’s office and they’re on Medicaid and they have high lead levels, they will be put in touch with the health department, which will work with the family,” Gamble says. “Anytime there is a child with elevated blood lead levels, they will be connected with a nurse, and the issues are addressed.”

Since this program began, Gamble says 100 applications have been received, but there has not always been a follow-through because, she says, “Sometimes, for whatever reason, a family might move, or change their mind about doing this at all, or become unresponsive.”

In the three years of the CHIP grant program, 63 projects have been completed on homes that are owned or rented.

Those families who do opt to receive the free lead abatement services will meet with Gamble. She will go over the application with them, tell them what to expect from the process, get them connected to other resources, and keep in touch with them as the lead removal process begins.

The first step is a lead risk assessment done by a certified inspector who visits the home and determines where the children spend the most time. This helps to determine where the kids are most likely to be exposed, Gamble says. Paint, water, and soil are tested and the results take about one month to complete.

“Once we see what all the hazards are, we can see what work is involved,” she says.

The lead abatement process can take up to 10 months to complete, but once Gamble determines that the family is eligible, and depending on the severity of the particular case, this timeline can be moved up.

Abatement of lead in the Potier’s home was supposed to begin on March 23, but COVID-19 put that on hold. In July, the family was moved into a hotel for three weeks while work was done to remove lead from their backyard and install new windows and trim throughout the home, the two areas with the highest lead concentrations.

The Potiers didn’t pay for the abatement or the cost of their hotel stay. Still, there was some stress involved because Chelsea Potier was eight months pregnant with the couple’s third child, Margaux.

Gamble says since the program began only one family has had to be relocated out of their home because their child’s blood lead levels were dangerously high and required hospitalization. She says not all situations require a lead abatement procedure and for those that don’t require abatement, it becomes a matter of educating the family about proper cleaning procedures.

“We go into the home and bring a cleaning kit and talk to them about how a small amount of lead-based dust can affect their child. We talk to them about keeping their kids away from some of those spaces or putting a chair in front of a space so the child can’t touch a windowsill for a while,” Gamble says. “We educate them on effective cleaning practices” which includes wiping surfaces with a small amount of moisture and using HEPA vacuums that are available to be loaned out.

“One of the things that’s important to note is that the incidences of dangerously high levels of lead are extremely low,” Gamble says.

Dangerously high levels are considered 10 parts per billion for a floor in a home. The Potiers did not have these critical levels and their daughter’s recovery, though slow, is giving them hope that she may be able to attend regular classes when she starts school next year. Potier says Avi’s lead level when she was first tested was at 19, which she says was high, but not excessively high and her physician was not concerned about any long-term effects.
 
“They want her lead levels to be under 5 and hers are at 5.5 or 5.7.  We will get her tested again in three months and I’m confident that her levels will be where they need to be and then we’ll get her tested in one year to make sure they’re staying down and she’s not been re-exposed.

“Avi’s lead levels are almost completely back down,” Potier says. “It’s taken a little over one year to get them this low.”

Reducing Avi’s lead levels has been accomplished through a diet high in leafy, green vegetables, and a series of vitamins. The family plans to get Malina tested again, but Potier says they’re not too concerned because her levels were normal during an earlier test.

More funding to help more families

“If you have a home built before 1978 the likelihood that you have lead hazards is extremely high,” Gamble says.

Lead is released into the environment through factory pollution and past leaded gasoline emissions. Lead can also get into soil from chips of old, peeling, lead-based paint on the outside of a home and lead dust from home remodeling/demolition projects.

 “Whether it requires actual rehabbing or cleaning is something determined by the actual hazard itself,” Gamble says.  “We’ve seen immaculately- kept homes and a child is lead poisoned and it’s usually because dad was doing some kind of project and discovered a lead issue that they didn’t even know about.”

The manufacture of lead-based paint was banned in the United States In 1978.

In Calhoun County, there are tens of thousands of homes built before 1978. And in the City of Battle Creek 15,000 homes were built before 1978, says Chris Lussier, the city’s Community Development Manager. He adds that between 60 and 70 percent of them have lead-based paint.

But, he says, this doesn’t always mean that a child has been exposed to lead.

“We always test for lead when we spend federal dollars on a project in a home where we do any work that may disturb the paint,” Lussier says. “If there’s a hazard present, we have to abate that hazard. This is money that focuses on high-risk areas. This allows us to be proactive or address hazardous situations and eliminate the site of exposure.”

On Sept. 30, the city’s lead abatement efforts received a major boost with the formal announcement of a $3 million grant to address lead abatement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The grant is part of HUD’s Lead Based Paint Hazard Reduction program. In addition to the $3 million grant, the city also received $400,000 from HUD’s Healthy Homes supplemental funding which helps communities with housing-related health and safety issues in addition to lead-based paint hazards.

Lussier says the grant funding, which is for 3.5 years, will enable the city to address lead hazards in 85 housing units occupied by low- and very low-income families with children. He says the city has a goal of addressing lead hazards in 200 housing units over the course of five years. 

“We’ve done the work already of identifying high-risk neighborhoods based on analysis,” Lussier says. “There are a lot of determining factors including the age of the housing, condition of the housing stock, and the prevalence of kids. Our highest priority is families that already have kids who have tested positive for lead. 

“During the first year, we will focus our attention on the City of Battle Creek.”

The city will partner with Neighborhoods Inc., which will handle the county end of the lead abatement program, he says.

The grant to the city is part of $165 million awarded by HUD to 44 state and local government agencies in 23 states. Michigan received a total of $8 million, says HUD Midwest Regional Coordinator Joseph P. Galvan, during a press conference to announce the grant.

“One of HUD’s priorities is to protect families from lead-based paint,” Galvan says, citing the existence of more than 14,000 low-income homes throughout the United States for which there are no other resources available to address lead abatement.

Gamble says one of the major differences between the Children’s Health Insurance Program grant and the HUD grant is that the latter is income-based versus Medicaid-eligible, which may give different families the opportunity to be involved.

Given the number of homes in Battle Creek that contain varying levels of lead, Lussier says it’s unrealistic to think that “we can abate lead in them all. It’s important that people living in old homes and landlords providing housing, and housing officials doing inspections know the risk factors. Peeling paint in one of these homes is a danger. Certain cleaning practices are important. Keeping painted friction surfaces in good repair is important.

“Our new lead grant is going to enable us to do more training and public education -- for contractors, housing inspectors, landlords, do-it-your-selfers, families, and others.

In addition, he says, the pool of certified lead abatement contractors working in Calhoun County will have to be greatly increased.

“We don’t have enough contractors currently to get all this work done. This work should create jobs in Calhoun County and could be a way for local contractors to build their businesses,” Lussier says. “The City offers incentives and training to help contractors get certified. We cover almost all costs associated with training, testing and certification of employees. We also cover costs associated with getting their businesses certified and our current lead program will cover the cost of pollution insurance for a year upon successful award of a lead abatement contract.”

Gamble says she wants as many obstacles as possible removed so that families, no matter what their income level or circumstances, can get the help they need.

Potier says there’s no way that they could have paid the cost of the lead abatement that was done on their home.

“We didn’t have a ton of options when we went house hunting. We had a tight budget. We were basing it off of my husband’s income,” she says. “We knew that I wanted to stay home eventually with the kids and we didn’t want a high mortgage payment. If we could have afforded to buy more, we would have found something on 10 acres.”

These days the house is filled with noise and activity and walls that contain artwork courtesy of Avi and Malina.

“It’s all been removed and we’re feeling pretty confident,” Potier says of the lead that once dominated their lives. “I’m an 'accept and process and tackle’ kind of girl. I wasn’t surprised about the lead, but I was extremely concerned.”

Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.
 

What is lead poisoning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control lead poisoning can happen if a person is exposed to very high levels of lead over a short period of time. When this happens, a person may feel:
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipated
  • Tired
  • Headachy
  • Irritable
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet
  • Weak
Because these symptoms may occur slowly or may be caused by other things, lead poisoning can be easily overlooked. Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death.

Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system. Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Lead exposure can cause miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility (in both men and women).
Generally, lead affects children more than it does adults. Children tend to show signs of severe lead toxicity at lower levels than adults. Lead poisoning has occurred in children whose parent(s) accidentally brought home lead dust on their clothing. Neurological effects and intellectual disability have also occurred in children whose parent(s) may have job-related lead exposure.

Health effects from prolonged exposure to lead
A person who is exposed to lead over time may feel:
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipated
  • Depressed
  • Distracted
  • Forgetful
  • Irritable
  • Nauseous/Sick
People with prolonged exposure to lead may also be at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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