Two new studies conducted by the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University highlight how prevalent and pervasive lead exposure is for Cleveland’s youth. Released Monday, the studies show a quarter of kindergartners in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District begin their education with a history of elevated lead.
The studies also concluded there was a discernible disparity between lead exposure among children on the East and West Sides. Kindergartners attending schools on the East Side are far more likely to have elevated levels of lead exposure, the study said. One of the studies was commissioned by Invest in Children.
“If you look at the school level, some schools, their kindergarten cohorts have a third to nearly a half of their kindergartners have a lead history,” said Dr. Rob Fischer, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University that led the six-month studies. “There’s a real disparity by neighborhood where you happen to grow up. It overlays heavily where our poverty is in the city and where our African American families are.”
Although there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s bloodstream, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set a level of five micrograms per deciliter as a barometer to identify children with elevated levels. Children can be exposed primarily through lead-based paint that’s prevalent on much of the city’s aging housing stock. Exposure happens when the paint begins to peel, allowing it to be digested or inhaled. The federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978.
Despite an overall drop in the rate of children with elevated blood lead levels have been on the decline, children in Cuyahoga County account for more than 40 percent of the children living in the state with elevated lead levels. Exposure to lead can cause issues with cognitive development, affecting a myriad of things, including behavior, IQ scores, hearing and speech.
The study’s methodology comprised of more than 10,000 kindergartners that were entering CMSD over a three-year period. Enrollment records were matched to lead-testing data from the Ohio Department of Health.
“This is not something that disappears with time. Once it leaves the blood stream the lead has moved to deep tissue and into bone. It has lasting effects,” Dr. Fischer said. “We have talked a lot about what happens later. How can we get kids through school and into college? But we are talking about the fundamental building blocks that kids are going to have to work with through that entire trajectory of their life. If we can prevent this ‘brain insult,’ if you will, we’re going to make all of those other initiatives more effective.”
The studies also highlighted an ocean-like disparity between students growing up in neighborhoods on the east and west sides. The neighborhoods with the highest proportions of kindergartners who have a history of elevated blood lead levels are Glenville (40.4 percent), St. Clair-Superior (36.2 percent), Buckeye-Woodhill (34 percent), Broadway-Slavic Village (34.6 percent). On the West Side, the Stockyards neighborhood, a proportion of 34 percent of resident kindergartners had elevated blood lead levels.
The fact that many of these neighborhoods are among the city’s poorest isn’t a coincidence, Dr. Fischer said.
“As somebody that has been looking at poverty in the City of Cleveland the last couple of decades, it is not surprising to me. We knew it was co-occurring with poverty and we know the landscape of poverty in the city of Cleveland.,” Dr. Fischer said. “I’m shocked at the level. I’m shocked that there is not more appetite for making a big difference on this issue.”
The other study found that students who are tested and found to have elevated blood lead levels are half as likely to be on par with their peers when it comes to kindergarten academic assessments. Unlike the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, Cleveland’s lead crisis comes down to lead-based paint in the city’s aging housing stock. Because of this, remediating the city’s lead hazards would involve a multi-faceted approach involving public and philanthropic entities, alongside private property owners.
“Our big goal is to put the right kind of data in front of partners that have the juice and energy to carry out something that makes a big difference here,” Dr. Fischer said.