By most accounts, Grand Rapids is a city on the rise. New developments and new investment pop up almost daily.
But lurking beneath the surface, often out-of-sight and out-of-mind, the West Michigan city of about 200,000 people bears a statistic that a group of activists seek to bring to light and ultimately shed: Grand Rapids has more lead-poisoned children than any other city in the state.
And they’re largely contained within one ZIP code, 49507 — one of the city’s poorest.
Paul Haan, executive director of the Grand Rapids nonprofit group, Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, notes that the city’s recovery from the Great Recession, resulting in a hot housing market, has inadvertently contributed to struggles with lead.
“Grand Rapids has benefited from economic recovery and a lot of people want to live here. When a lot of people want to live here, they live in homes that have lead hazards and kids are inadvertently put in harm’s way,” Haan said.
“That’s our challenge in Grand Rapids. We want to make this a livable, vibrant city where lots of things are going on. But we have to make sure it’s safe, too.”
A 2018 Healthy Homes report notes that 48 percent of the people they serve are African-American and 32 percent are Latino. The average annual income of the people living in those homes is a little more than $22,000.
While lead-tainted water created Flint’s ongoing drinking water crisis, Grand Rapids’ issue with the health-harming element comes more from paint and dust from an older housing stock.
Lead paint was banned in 1978. But four out of five homes in Grand Rapids were built before then, according to data from Kent County’s Lead Task Force. Its 2018 report notes that in 2014, the year the Flint water crisis began, there were 122 children in Flint with lead poisoning, while there were 145 lead poisoned kids in Grand Rapids’ 49507 ZIP code on the city’s southeast side.
By the next year, Flint’s population of lead-poisoned children had dropped to 111 kids, while the 49507 ZIP code saw a 28 percent increase to 186 children with lead poisoning. That rate has remained relatively steady, according to the Healthy Homes group.
In 2017, there were 4,960 children total in Michigan who tested as having elevated levels of lead in their bodies, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Children under the age of 6 tend to be most vulnerable to lead poisoning. The effects can include lower IQs, stunted growth and higher rates of incarceration, according to the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), a nonpartisan environmental advocacy group.
The state of Michigan estimates that exposure to lead costs the state $270 million annually, with $112 million of that being passed along to taxpayers.
Activists seeking to address the issue in Grand Rapids stress they’re not trying to diminish from the crisis in Flint. Rather, they seek to put the situation in Grand Rapids into perspective and call on legislators and policymakers to see the interconnectedness of the state’s various environmental crises.
“I think that in so many situations we have one crisis that we pit against another and that’s not the way these things should be approached. That’s a very reactionary approach,” Alex Markham, a volunteer with the Grand Rapids group Parents for Healthy Homes, told the Advance.
“So instead from a legislator’s standpoint … when you look at the root of all of these things, we don’t have proper codes,” she continued. “We’re not enforcing them the way we should.”
Markham also noted a similarity with the growing problem of a suite of chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in drinking water.
“We didn’t have the proper regulatory things in place,” she said.
The Kent County Lead Task Force notes that exposure to lead contamination is “100 percent preventable,” a point also stressed by Tina Reynolds, health policy director with the MEC.
“Instead of waiting until the child is impacted and then [go into] disaster response after that, we’re trying to eliminate all sources of lead from the environment to start off with,” Reynolds said during an education event on lead held this week in Grand Rapids.
“There’s no reason that kids should be impacted at all. We know where lead is; we know how to get rid of it. No parent should be in the position where we are coming in after.”
Fixing the problem, however, will likely be a lengthy exercise and “may take a generation,” according to the Kent County report.
It’s also likely to be expensive.
In Kent County alone, there are 83,000 homes built before 1978, the year in which lead paint was outlawed. On average, remediating lead paint hazards in Kent County costs $10,473 per housing unit, according to the report. Totally abating lead hazards forever can cost around $40,000 for a 1,200-square-foot housing unit.
Lingering problems with lead poisoning in older homes are leading to some action on the part of lawmakers at both the state and federal levels.
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) announced they were sponsors of legislation that would “guarantee” testing for children deemed at risk of lead contamination, require testing and mitigation for lead-based paint and lead in drinking water at schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and take other efforts to remediate lead at military facilities.
“There is no safe level of lead. Every family in America should be able to trust that their home and drinking water is free from lead,” Kildee said in a statement. “My hometown of Flint, Michigan knows all too well the consequences of lead in drinking water. By expanding lead testing in homes and schools, our legislation better protects families and children living on military bases.”
A pair of freshman state legislators confirmed they’re also working on legislation related to lead poisoning. The office of state Rep. Alex Garza (D-Taylor) said he’s drafting a bill that would lower the threshold for lead poisoning in residents.
Meanwhile, in an interview with the Advance on Thursday, state Rep. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids) said she’s working on two pieces of legislation related to the issue, which could be introduced next month.
One bill would shift liability for lead contamination in rental properties to landlords, while another would increase testing requirements for homes built before 1978.
Hood said that while the Flint water crisis has brought lead contamination into the open, the situation in Grand Rapids continues to fly under the radar.
“What we don’t see are the 400 kids per year who are poisoned by lead in Grand Rapids homes,” Hood said, adding that money appropriated for lead remediation in Flint has yet to find its way to the west side of the state. “Grand Rapids kids are also impacted by these exposures, at a rate that is alarming.”
Activists like Markham with the Parents for Healthy Homes group welcome the attention on lead from politicians. But they also stress that citizens must continue putting pressure on elected officials to take action because the consequences of lead poisoning are far-reaching.
“That process is not stopping, not because people don’t care. All of us care, right?” she said. “You could ask any person down at [Grand Rapids] City Hall, they would say they care. But an issue is important if you make that issue important.”