Originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 60, printed October 28. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

This issue of The Virginia Defender hits the streets Oct. 28, just after National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (Oct. 20-26). We’re glad to see that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has taken the opportunity to use this week to help spread awareness in the city about the dangers of lead poisoning, especially to young children.

According to a media release from the mayor’s office, Mayor Stoney, the City’s Department of Housing and Community Development, the Richmond City Health District, project:HOMES and the local Housing and Urban Development Office “are joining forces to raise awareness of the dangers of lead exposure and poisoning.”

Lead is a naturally occurring element that can be toxic to humans and animals, causing serious health problems. It used to be commonly used in making paint, until that use was banned in 1978. So there’s a good chance that any house or apartment built before that year could contain lead-based paint.

The problem comes in when the toxic paint deteriorates and paint chips fall to the floor. The chips taste sweet, and little children like to eat them. The lead accumulates in their bodies and can have serious, long-term consequences, affecting their ability to learn, as well as causing behavioral problems.

In Richmond, close to three-quarters of the housing was built before 1978. When we wonder why so many schoolchildren can’t read by grade three, have difficulty sitting still in class and act out in negative ways, there’s a chance the reason is lead poisoning.

By the way, before grade three, a child is learning to read. After the third grade, they are reading to learn. If they miss this critical benchmark, it can become more and more difficult to keep up with their classmates. Frustration can lead to dropping out of school and then to trouble in the streets. When we’re talking about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” one of the often overlooked factors is lead poisoning.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, approximately 16,000 children under the age of six living in Richmond are considered at high risk for lead poisoning. Because children living below the poverty line or residing in rental units built before 1978 are at the highest risk of lead exposure, low-income and families of color are disproportionately affected. Pregnant women residing in older housing are also at high risk.

One of the early campaigns the Defenders worked on was when we supported Queen Zakia Shabazz and her United Parents Against Lead organization, which was exposing the fact that Richmond’s lead-abatement program, funded with a multi-million dollar grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, was a sham. Grant money was being given to contractors who hired people off the street with no experience with scraping and repainting housing units that had lead-based paint.

In many cases, the work was so shoddy that the levels of lead were worse after the treatment. Your humble editor checked out a few of the “contractors.” One was just a mail box at a UPS store.

The City insisted that the program was working and ignored our alarms. We persisted, and HUD eventually pulled the grant. The grant money is now flowing again to the city – the current HUD grant is for $2.3 million – and hopefully it’s being used in a wiser and more honest way.

One simple solution to the problem of lead poisoning is to test children at age one or even younger. As it is now, we wait until a child is sick to test them, by which time it’s often too late to stop the irreparable damage. Families are signed up for lead abatement programs after their children test positive for lead. Essentially, the children are being used as proverbial canaries in the coal mine.

This Oct. 21, the City of Richmond sent out a media release urging parents to have their children and homes tested for lead. If the homes are found to be poisoned, they can make use of a free city program to deal with the problem. If the children are found to be poisoned, there are treatments, but the sooner the problem is detected, the better.

Parents with young children are strongly encouraged to sign up for the city’s Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, which provides free home screenings and lead abatement to eligible homes and rental properties in Richmond.

“This program is essential because it provides a pathway for homes to be made lead safe for Richmond’s children,” said Zack Miller, Lead Hazard Control Program Project Manager at project:HOMES. “Lead poisoning causes real health problems impacting a child’s IQ, mood and behavior in ways that can limit future opportunities and prevent success. This program provides our city’s low- and moderate-income families a cost-free path to knowing their homes are lead safe and not negatively affecting their children’s future.”

Parents with children under age six and women who are pregnant are encouraged to call project:HOMES at 804-718-0517 or visit https://www.projecthomes.org/lead-remediation to learn more about the program.

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