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With hundreds of properties still deemed hazardous, lead paint problems persist in Cleveland area

90% of homes in Cleveland built before national paint ban
Lead Paint Problems in Cleveland
Lead Paint in Clevelad
Posted at 12:56 PM, Oct 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-28 15:47:01-04

CLEVELAND — National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week is Oct. 24 to 30. These five days focus on bringing awareness to the causes and impacts of lead poisoning. But, 40 years after the ban on lead-based paint, Clevelanders are still fighting for safe housing.

Demetruis Wade was born in Cleveland in 1983. He went home with his mother and father, Darrick, to Lakeview Terrace in Ohio City.

"He was a happy child," Darrick Wade said of his son. "He always laughed. And he laughed until about the age of 1 and a half — 18 months."

Wade said his son stopped laughing because he was poisoned by lead. He recalled an incident where Demetrius became aggressive with his grandmother and with an older boy who walked with him to school.

Wade said the aggression was a symptom of lead poisoning.

"You're helpless. As a parent, you are helpless," he said about how in the 1980s and 1990s there were fewer resources for parents with children poisoned by lead.

Demetrius Wade wasn't diagnosed until he was 9 years old. After living with lead poisoning most of his life, his health deteriorated fast. Demetrius was diabetic. His liver, kidneys, and esophagus failed. His heart was enlarged.

In September 2007, when he was 24-years-old, Demetrius died.

Darrick Wade found his son lying on the floor of his apartment and rushed him to the emergency room. Three hours later, Wade was told his son died.

"That just messed me up," he said. "I was there. I was there. I got him to the hospital. I wouldn't want any other parent to go through what I went through."

That feeling is why Wade joined a network of activists in Cleveland.

"Lead is public enemy number one," is the rallying cry for Yvonka Hall and her group Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH).

Hall is a Cleveland native fighting to change the policies around lead, "because there are no safe levels of lead poisoning."

Ninety percent of the houses in Cleveland were built before 1978, which means they most likely had lead-based paint on the walls. Peeling paint falls to the ground and is easily ingested by small children.

"Lead is sweet like candy," Hall said. "It's white, it's yellow, it's green, it's blue. So, it's Skittles."

In 1978, Congress passed a law banning the use of lead paint in houses.

On their website, the Environmental Protection Agency said houses built before 1940 are 87% more likely to have lead-based paint on walls than other homes. That percentage drops for houses built between 1940 and 1959 to 69%.

The Ohio Department of Health tracks buildings marked with hazardous lead. When News 5 checked on Oct. 20, there were 481 properties in Cuyahoga County marked as hazardous.

While advocates argue there are no safe levels of lead, the Centers for Disease Control said anything higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter is dangerous. A lead poisoning prevention group in Hawaii puts it this way on their website: "A small paper clip weighs about one gram. If you were to split a paper clip into one million pieces, one of those pieces would be the weight of a microgram. A deciliter is a unit of volume and is equal to one-tenth of a liter, or a little less than half a cup."

Levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter can cause cognitive and emotional deficits.

Editor's note: A day after our report aired, the Associated Press reported that the feds have established a new standard of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, which means the number of children considered to have high blood lead levels will grow from about 200,000 to about 500,000.

"There are ways we can help save our children," Hall said, "because when we save them, we save us."

Erika Jarvis knows what lead can do to a person. Raised in the Glenville neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side, she was diagnosed with lead poisoning after the levels in her blood were six times the limit. The lead made her aggressive when she was younger.

"Sometimes I would scream. Sometimes I would rage. Sometimes I would stomp my feet and I think it's a little past a tantrum," she said. "It was extreme. It would come out of nowhere ... It was really scary to experience that because I had no control over it."

In January of this year, an ordinance went into effect saying landlords must certify their properties are lead safe.

For Jarvis, it's an expensive but necessary step.

"Poisoned children is not good," she said.

Cleveland City Council has federal money to use. Supporters want a portion of American Rescue Plan Funds allocated before the end of the year. The two major groups - CLASH and Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition - have different dollar amounts in mind.

"It's a very complex issue but it's not a very complicated one," Jarvis said.

Activists with CLASH want more children to be tested. They also want the city equipped with a mobile testing van to get to neighborhoods that need testing the most.

"Saving children saves our communities," Hall said.

Thirty years after her diagnosis, Jarvis is a mother. She's worried about lead around her child because she knows the impact high levels have on her body may kill her.

"I try to live a life where I'm healthy," she said. "I exercise. I eat right as the best that I can. But I'm also realistic in that I don't know what effects lead has done to me or will do to me down the line."