New ‘Get the Lead Out Detroit Coalition’ holds first outreach event in Southwest Detroit

Mareesha Walker has a message for Detroit’s parents: lead poisoning is a big risk for city kids, and knowledge is power.

Walker, a health educator with Detroit’s Health Department, was in attendance at the Lead Safe Kids Resource Fair on Sat., Feb. 11, at the  Ford Resource and Engagement Center in Southwest Detroit.  She is a part of the new Get the Lead Out Detroit Coalition that aims to raise awareness and advocate for policies to reduce the threat of lead poisoning to Detroit’s children.

Weekly food distribution at the Engagement Center provided an opportunity to coordinate cleaning kit distribution alongside food boxes. Health Department staff saw the opportunity as a way to provide lead education resources to those in the area who may be apprehensive about learning about lead poisoning. 

Members of the Coalition were present to share resources to help Detroit families navigate the threat of lead exposure in their homes. In addition to the usual Saturday offerings, including free tax assistance and community dance and art classes, Coalition members offered lead-safe cleaning demonstrations, cleaning kits, legal assistance for families with lead-exposed kids who may be battling landlords on cleanup issues, on-site blood testing for kids, and more. 

Approximately 1,000 children in Detroit had an elevated blood lead level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter or more in 2021. Those numbers are likely much lower than the actual number as fewer children have been tested since the pandemic. 

“Because it’s such a big problem that a lot of people don’t know about, it is our responsibility to ensure [residents] have resources,” Walker said. 

As part of her role at the Detroit Health Department, Walker routinely visits childcare centers to test kids for lead poisoning and trains healthcare providers on how to conduct the testing. She said a significant challenge is some healthcare providers’ misconceptions about lead poisoning. 

“The healthcare system is still a bit ignorant around education; they see [lead exposure] as a result of bad parenting,” she said. “It is not a personal problem or people problem; it’s an environmental problem.”

Southwest Detroit resident Bianca (she declined to give her last name) and her family attended the event after learning about it from her daughter’s school. Her daughter received on-site lead testing, while Bianca received information about available grant funding to remove lead hazards in homes through Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department. 

Detroit’s federally funded Lead Safe Housing Program focuses on zip codes in Southwest Detroit because of the high concentration of children living in older housing in the community. Children living in homes built before 1978, when Congress banned lead paint, are at an increased risk for lead exposure. Residents of zip codes 48202, 48204, 48206, 48209, 48210, 48217, 48213 or 48214 can apply for up to $40,000 in home repair funds to remove lead hazards.

Bianca with her family while waiting in line for lead testing. Photo by Rukiya Colvin.

Bianca said she’d like to see more outreach into the Spanish-speaking community. Educational materials were presented in Spanish, and several Coalition members spoke Spanish and English. 

“A lot of times they don’t understand what’s going on in the community with these events, because they don’t have someone like them explaining and telling them, ‘okay, there’s this event, you should join us,’” she said. Bianca has only recently learned about the dangers of lead exposure.

Lattice Covington stumbled upon the event to access free tax services.  Having remediated her home for lead over eight years ago, thanks to grant funding, she was already aware of the hazards of lead.

”It was something I knew I couldn’t afford to do on my own, but I was glad the resource was there to be secure in knowing that the children are safe,” she said.

Lakeshore Legal Aid representatives offer legal assistance in landlord-tenant disputes involving lead exposure. Photo by Rukiya Colvin.

Aida Colon, program manager with the HRD, said she is hopeful about the Coalition’s ability to bring together disparate resources for the public around the issue of lead exposure. 

“We try to build that trust up, and we can do that through our partners,” she said. 

Coalition partners in attendance included the Housing and Revitalization Department, Lakeshore Legal Aid, Wayne State’s Mobile Health Unit, CLEARCorps, Detroit Lead Parent Advocates, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

According to a pamphlet, the Get the Lead Out Detroit Coalition’s goal is to reduce lead hazards and develop collective strategies that support the improved health of children.”

They plan to have more information available to the public soon, including opportunities for partnership with local organizations. The Coalition is facilitated by the nonprofit healthy housing advocacy group CLEARCorps.

Families wanting to learn more about lead services can contact [email protected] or call (313) 924-4000.

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