Grant-funded project to rid rural homes of lead

BOWLING GREEN, O.—The dangers of lead poisoning in aging, urban homes have been well documented. But the problem is equally severe in rural homes, according to Drs. Gary Silverman and Hailu Kassa of the Bowling Green State University College of Health and Human Services.

They have received a new, $228,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will enable BGSU to expand its lead-abatement efforts to northwest Ohio counties that have not had sufficient resources to address the issue.

The professors will oversee the formation of a network among local health districts, beginning with Erie, Huron, Williams and Wood counties, with three other counties potentially joining later. By preparing public health officials to deal with lead prevention and poisoning recognition and intervention, the benefits of the project should endure well beyond the one-year term of the grant, said Silverman, director of BGSU's Environmental Health Program.

Lead poisoning, which primarily results from exposure to flaking, lead-based paint, is particularly dangerous for young children. Inhaling or ingesting the lead particles can cause developmental, neurological and other acute problems.

“Babies crawling across the floor in these older homes pick up dust, and then they put their fingers or their toys in their mouths. That dust is where the lead is,” explained Silverman. “It tends to be created where wood is rubbing against wood, as in painted windows and doors opening and shutting.”

The new network will enable collaboration between the participating health districts, significantly expanding their capacity to serve their communities. It is typically difficult for local health districts to individually justify significant expenditures on lead programs where the homes are scattered and the number of children affected is relatively low, say the two project directors. Yet “it's a huge issue” in terms of pediatric care costs, according to Kassa, an associate professor of public and allied health at the University.

The regional approach will serve to “break the system of each individual health district relying exclusively on its own resources and not being able to contribute substantially to reducing lead problems among its constituency,” according to the project description.

It is difficult to know the number of houses and children at risk from lead poisoning in the region, but in Wood County, the county planning commission estimated that 24,474 homes present a lead paint hazard.

“Similar calculations could be done for the other counties involved in the study, but the major point is already clear—there are children at potential risk in these rural counties,” say Silverman and Kassa. The information gathered through the project can help in planning future intervention programs.

Like the affected homes in the urban neighborhoods, the rural homes to be addressed by the new project were built before 1978, the year the federal government banned lead-based paint from housing. Unfortunately for rural children, the risk from lead poisoning is perhaps greater because fewer lead-poisoning prevention programs are in place in their areas, Silverman said.

The first step will be to build the long-term capacity of local health districts by organizing a regional lead committee, which will establish a framework for each health district to identify and fill in the gaps in training and certification where needed. The next step will be to deliver the actual community training and education programs.

The ultimate goal is a long-term decrease in lead poisoning, say the project directors.

Silverman and Kassa have extensive experience directing community projects. They have for several years collaborated with local officials in Toledo conducting a grant-funded program in economically stressed neighborhoods teaching parents and homeowners how to minimize the risks of exposure to lead.

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(Posted September 11, 2007)