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Parents call for better inspections to stop lead poisoning in Grand Rapids

workers removing lead paint from exterior of house
Jamie Hooper
Adobe Stock
The biggest risk factor in lead poisonings is not the water supply. It’s in the paint of older homes and apartments.";

Each year, thousands of children in Michigan are found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The biggest risk factor in lead poisonings is not the water supply. It’s in the paint of older homes and apartments.

Landlords have to tell tenants that lead may be in the home. But in most places, they’re not required to actually do anything about it.

Now, there’s a push to change that.

Nyi‘Cear Vance is a chatty smiley 8 year old. She likes Monster High. She’s double jointed. She loves to go swimming and is looking forward to getting her nails done with Kimmy, her babysitter, on her 9th birthday.

When school’s in, her favorite thing to do is:

“Umm, when I’m able to write, write.”

“When you’re able to write?” I ask.

“Yeah, cause most of the times I’m not able to, like as fast as I want to, so now like I’m almost able to do really good."

Writing is a little hard for Nyi’Cear because her mom says she has nerve damage in her fingers. That’s just one of the health problems Nyi’Cear has experienced because of lead poisoning.

Her mom, Randi Challender, says when Nyi’Cear was just ten months old, they were living in an apartment in an old house. The landlord wasn’t rich. He was trying to repair the house on his own. And he was outside scraping paint. It turned out to be lead paint.

“We had the windows open, fans going,” Challender says. “And all of the lead dust was actually coming in the windows. And, with a 10 month on the floor, she was breathing it in just as everybody else in the house was.”

Challender was a young mom. She didn’t know about the risks of lead. But she was advised to get Nyi’Cear tested.

“And within 48 hours, she was admitted to Helen Devos Children’s Hospital on IV chelation therapy to help pull the lead from her body and dispose of it,” Challender says.

The amount of lead in Nyi’Cear’s blood was about 10 times the level the state considers “elevated.”

Challender says she tried suing the landlord, but the case was thrown out.

And, eight years later, there’s been hardly any change that would stop this from happening again in the city of Grand Rapids.

"We expect somebody that has maybe really good intentions but no expertise to look for peeling and chipping paint, and that's not a good proxy for a lead hazard," says Paul Haan of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.

Paul Haan leads the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.

He says the goal shouldn’t just be to hold landlords accountable after the fact, but to prevent the poisoning in the first place. In Grand Rapids, the city has to certify an apartment before it can be rented out. But that certification only requires a visual inspection for lead hazards.

“We expect somebody that has maybe really good intentions but no expertise to look for peeling and chipping paint, and that’s not a good proxy for a lead hazard,” Haan says. “We’ve got to go deeper than that, and we’ve got to raise the community standard.” 

Raising the standard is exactly the recommendation that came in a recent report to the city from the National Center for Healthy Housing.

The report called for changing an ordinance to require a full lead test on rental properties, and to require landlords to fix any problems.

But just changing the ordinance won’t be enough.

Detroit already made that move, in 2016.

“[We have] 2,600 properties that have certificates of compliance,” says Julie Vande Vusse, a project manager at the City of Detroit, who works on getting certificates of compliance.

That’s two thousand six hundred certificates in a city that Vander Vusse says has about 40 thousand rental properties.

It’s one thing to make the requirement. It’s another to find the apartments and make sure landlords comply.

Vander Vusse says one thing tenants can do, at least in Detroit, is to make sure they ask to see the certificate showing the home has been tested for lead.

“As a tenant, it is their right to have a safe home to live in,” Vande Vusse says. “They should require their landlord to provide a certificate of compliance to them prior to moving in.”

In Grand Rapids, a group of parents earlier this month went to the city commission to urge them to change the ordinance, to do what Detroit’s already done.

“People think this is a small problem, but it’s a very big problem,” said Lisa Matthews, who told commissioners her grandchild was lead poisoned. “I know it takes time to do something about it … I’m just sayin’ what are we going to do now?”

The city does have money in the budget this year from federal grants to pay for lead remediation. But the ordinance change so far hasn’t made it onto the city’s agenda.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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