News

Grant will put boots on ground to combat South Bend's lead problem

By: Ted Booker, South Bend Tribune

November 1, 2017

SOUTH BEND — Boots will soon be on the ground to combat a problem with lead-poisoned kids on the city’s near northwest side, thanks to a $30,000 federal grant awarded to a local neighborhood group.

Two part-time community outreach workers will soon be hired by the Near Northwest Neighborhood Inc. for a yearlong project as a result of the grant, which was awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Small Grant Program.

The group also received a $16,500 grant earlier this year from the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County for the outreach project, which will start in January.

Outreach workers will get the word out about the risks in old homes of lead, a toxic metal that can permanently damage the brains of young children. Efforts will be focused on helping families with children in a neighborhood with a history of lead problems. It is known as U.S. Census Tract 6.

Local health officials began focusing on the area’s problem after the state released testing data in late 2016 that showed an unusually high percentage of young children had elevated blood levels from 2005 through 2015 in Tract 6, along with other neighborhoods. Tract 6 stood out because it had the greatest percentage of kids with elevated levels in the state.

The new employees, who will be trained to become certified community health workers, will go door-knocking in Tract 6 to encourage families to get children tested and keep their homes lead-safe, said Kathy Schuth, executive director of the neighborhood group.

“We’ve found that families aren’t taking action unless they’re told about it by someone they trust,” she said, adding that workers will also organize community meetings and provide information to local schools and churches.

Grant money will also be used to hold a handful of free lead screenings to increase testing. State data show that from 2005 through 2010, less than 10 percent of children under age 7 were tested for lead in St. Joseph County.

“A huge win would be to increase the number of kids tested in Census Tract 6,” Schuth said.

Funding, meanwhile, has been committed from other sources to combat the area’s lead problem.

Earlier this year, the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns awarded a $7,000 grant toward an effort by faculty and students to test South Bend homes for lead. A portion of that grant allowed free blood lead testing to be done by the county’s Women, Infants and Children program.

The city of South Bend, meanwhile, has set aside money in its 2018 budget to tackle the problem.

To fund a variety of lead-related efforts, the city will redirect $100,000 it pledged for a failed grant application to launch a $100,000 “flexible fund.” And it will use another $100,000, from federal Community Block Grant money, to launch a fund managed by the Department of Community Investment.

Among other things, the Lead Exposure Affinity Group — composed of health officials, community advocates and university faculty members — has recommended that the $200,000 in new funding go toward the purchase of point-of-care analyzers to help the area’s busiest clinics test more kids for lead; the purchase of lead cleaning kits for families; and the launch of a mini-grant program to help families make lead-related repairs of up to $1,000.

The city’s Home Improvement Program, federally funded at $200,000, will help address lead issues in homes. Although the program isn’t entirely dedicated to lead-related repairs, it prioritizes them.

The city is also funding a $180,000 pilot program that will allow Department of Code Enforcement inspectors to assess rental units for lead and other problems.

Heidi Bedinger-Burnett, a faculty member at Notre Dame’s Eck Institute for Global Health and member of the St. Joseph County Board of Health, has been encouraged by efforts to combat the area’s problem. But she said the county health department needs more money to provide services for lead-poisoned kids.

“The county is the one holding the purse strings,” she said, “and officials have to get intimately involved.”