Oct 9, 2009 11:19 AM by Mike Stuckey
Anthony and Carolyn Hunt don't know how many jobs a $3 million federal stimulus grant to prevent lead poisoning in young children will bring to their county, but to them that's beside the point.
Three years after learning that one of their four sons had dangerously high levels of lead in his blood, the grant money will allow the Hunts to remove some of the most serious sources of the metal from their four-square-style home built in 1920.
"This is a huge beast," Anthony Hunt said of the hazard in his home and millions of others across the country, the lingering result of lead-based paint that was used widely until banned in 1978. "This is essentially an unfunded mandate that ought to be handled on a national basis, period."
When President Obama came to Elkhart County in February to pitch his stimulus plan, his main focus was on the 3 million to 4 million jobs he said the $787 billion in federal spending would generate. But Obama highlighted another goal of this money: It would support "jobs that meet the needs we've neglected for far too long."
In places like Elkhart County, one of those jobs is removing lead hazards from homes where children live. Lead poisoning in young kids can cause everything from learning problems to violent behavior, and even death in extreme cases.
Thanks to the banning of lead paint and aggressive programs to remove sources of the metal from the environment, the number of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood has fallen steeply over the past two decades. But fully eradicating lead poisoning has proven difficult. With the federal stimulus boosting the amount of money available for lead remediation by $78 million, child health advocates hope to make even more headway.
"Without this funding, many cities and counties would not be able to provide safe homes for children and families to thrive," said Melanie Hudson, executive director of the Children's Health Forum, which focuses on fighting childhood lead poisoning. "However, with sufficient resources, we can eliminate childhood lead poisoning as a major public health problem for good."
While lead contamination is a problem all across the country, it's more prevalent in the East and Upper Midwest, which have higher concentrations of homes built before 1940, which means they almost certainly contain some lead paint. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 24 million U.S. homes still contain substantial lead paint hazards, about one in every five.
In Elkhart County, an estimated 44,389 homes were built before lead-based paint was banned - two-thirds of all residences. The county Health Department is currently monitoring 83 kids who have been diagnosed with lead poisoning over the past few years, but officials suspect the true number of cases could be 500 or higher.
For years, the county did what it could about the dangers of lead in older homes and apartments, but was hampered by a lack of funding. Last year, the county applied for a federal grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development but lost out to other applicants with more urgent cases in the competitive process that typically doles out about 30 grants of $3 million each year.
When the Obama administration told federal agencies to find "shovel ready" projects that could be fast-tracked and fuel them with stimulus funds, HUD directed additional funds to its lead-hazard reduction program and Elkhart County's request was approved.
"What an awesome opportunity," said Carrie Brunson, an environmental health specialist with the county who will spend the next 30 months riding herd on the grant. "I know the difference this money can make. We're going to get into homes before they've lead-poisoned anyone."
With the HUD grant, bolstered by $1.6 million in resources from the county and La Casa of Goshen, a nonprofit housing developer, Elkhart plans to remove lead from more than 200 homes. The program also will train dozens of contractors and their employees in lead-safe work procedures and reach up to 30,000 county residents with information on lead hazards.
The indefatigable Brunson, 36, who has worked for the county for over a decade, has years of experience managing the cases of lead-poisoned children, as well as the first-hand knowledge that comes from having removed lead contamination from the Elkhart home she shares with her husband and 5-year-old son.
Touring Elkhart, Brunson is able to point out house after house with lead issues. "There's a lead-poisoned child in that house. Here's a house that's in the program. See that house there? Look at all that loose paint and the fan in the window. It's just blowing the lead dust right into the room and a lot of the time that will be where the child sleeps."
Although the program is just getting up to speed, 11 homes have been approved for lead-hazard work and another 70 applications are being reviewed. Brunson's biggest fear is that homeowners and landlords won't be able to afford their 25 percent share of the costs, expected to total about $12,500 per home.
"A lot of the families I see are one-income families," she said. She encourages them to apply anyway, noting that it's a three-year program and there are some options for poorer homeowners to get their share subsidized.
Finding the lead is easy, said La Casa construction manager Armand Martin, who has been hired by the grant program to oversee the work. Handheld X-ray devices can spot lead's presence in seconds, even under many coats of newer paint. Martin said the hardest job in most homes will be replacing painted sash windows.
"That's where 80 percent of lead-poisoning in homes occurs," he said, due to dust created by friction as the windows are opened and closed. Also, because lead-based paint was so durable, it continued to be used on windows long after painters stopped using it on other surfaces. Other trouble areas are siding and porches.
Those were likely the sources of old lead paint that poisoned the Hunts' young son after they moved into their 1,400-square-foot home in an upscale neighborhood on East Jackson Street.
"When Silas was one year old, he went to the Health Department for his shots," recalled Anthony Hunt, manager of the local public radio station. The family was offered a free lead test, and he failed.
The Hunts were devastated when Brunson's tests of their home found that "almost every painted surface in the house has lead-based paint on it," Anthony Hunt said. Knowing that, they were able to keep Silas and his three brothers away from the worst lead issues. That eventually led to the clearing of the metal from Silas' body, although the family is uncertain about possible long-term effects on his development.
With estimates to fix the lead hazards coming in at more than half the home's purchase price of $106,000, the Hunts were forced to prioritize. Cashing in retirement funds and getting help from relatives, they replaced porches, along with some topsoil that was contaminated. But until they were recently accepted into the grant program, they were at a loss on how to replace the old windows, which they haven't opened in three years.
Despite the price of lead-hazard work, Brunson said it's a bargain compared with the extra costs - pegged at $45,000 per lead-poisoned child - borne by society to educate them and deal with them in other ways. And chelation therapy, a treatment that strips all minerals from the blood and is used in the most severe cases, can be vastly more expensive as it often requires hospitalization.
But that economic equation is beside the point for La Casa's Martin.
"When you see a couple little kids, just beautiful little tykes, running around with lead poisoning and you realize this is going to create problems for the rest of their lives, you've just got to do something," he said.
HUD will require paperwork from Elkhart County's lead program that documents job creation. So far, though, the county can't put hard numbers on it, aside from Brunson and Martin's positions, and they were already employed.
The program has trained more than 30 people to supervise and perform lead-abatement work. Participants had to pay for part of their own training, so there's a willing workforce eager to get contracts under the grant program.
But "we don't know if they'll hire more people to do those jobs," Brunson said.
One general contractor who has obtained work under the grant program, Don Norman of Elkhart, said he was planning to add an employee to his three-man crew with the expectation that he'll be getting more lead-hazard work. His wife, Cindy Norman, got state certification over the summer to work as a lead-risk assessor, also with an eye toward getting grant-funded work.
And painting contractor Shelly Herman of Middlebury, who runs a solo shop for now, hopes to expand as well. "Generally, all of the lead jobs need paint," she said. "It's going to contribute to a lot of my business, so I'm real excited about it."
Despite these short-term gains, Indiana University economics Professor Bill Witte is skeptical of the program's economic benefits.
"Long-run recovery requires that private businesses become willing to invest and expand employment on a permanent basis," he said. "I see little in a program like this that produces such effects."
Watching her son Silas, now 4 and free of lead poisoning, play in the family's living room, Carolyn Hunt said the program's benefits go beyond just dollars and cents.
"That's the kind of thing that's going to be very hard to measure," she said. "It doesn't necessarily mean there's a job for somebody next week or next month but it will benefit Elkhart County for years to come."