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City setting sights on lead poisoning in kids

Liz Hoffman | 7/28/2009, 7:34 a.m.

When Taina Polanco bought her South Dorchester home in February of 2006, she worried about plenty of things: her job, improving her English, and making sure her 3-year-old daughter brushed her teeth in the morning.

But while chatting with a friend in a local beauty salon last April, Polanco learned about something that had never crossed her mind.

“My friend had bought a house but couldn’t live there because it had lead paint,” said Polanco, who was five months pregnant at the time. “I think, ‘What if my house has it, too?’ I never worried about that before. It’s scary when you worry about where you live.”

As it turned out, Polanco’s house did have lead paint. But thanks to a refocused citywide campaign, Polanco, her daughter, and her now-5-month-old son can all sleep easy.

Polanco benefited from the outreach, testing, education and financial resources of the Boston 2010 Project, a collaboration between city agencies and nonprofits aiming to eliminate childhood lead
poisoning in the city by the end of the decade.

Two years after its founding, the initiative has refocused its efforts to target several neighborhoods, like Dorchester, that have lagged behind the monumental drop in cases citywide.

“The numbers are down overall, but this is definitely part of the story of health disparities,” said Robert Pulster, executive director of Ensuring Stability through Action in our Community (ESAC) and head of the 2010 project’s outreach committee. “Poorer neighborhoods have bigger problems with this, and children are still at risk.”

Children’s bodies absorb lead more easily than those of adults, and because their brains are still developing, the effects are far more damaging. Elevated blood lead levels can cause developmental delays, behavioral problems and kidney damage.

Two percent of children in Boston tested positive for elevated blood lead levels in 2006, a 90 percent drop since 1995. But in North Dorchester, that figure was nearly double the city average, at 3.8 percent. North and South Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park were all well above the city average and accounted for 60 percent of Boston’s total cases.

“It’s concentrated in those neighborhoods, especially in North Dorchester in the Bowdoin Street area, so that’s where we’ve been doing the bulk of our outreach efforts,” said Leon Bethune, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Office of Environmental Health, which is responsible for enforcing the state’s lead law.

Houses built before 1978, when that law went into effect, are considered to be at greatest risk. According to 2001 data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), nearly 40 percent of Boston’s housing stock had lead-based paint, and poor maintenance or unregulated renovations of these houses can expose children to lead dust, the leading source of lead poisoning.

Dr. Michael Shannon, chief of emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston and a 22-year veteran of the hospital’s lead poisoning prevention program, has seen firsthand the effects of the citywide improvements. He says that the number of visits to the hospital’s clinic has dropped from more than 2,500 visits per year in the 1980s to well under 1,000 now.

But he says the demographics of his patients are changing, too.

In the 1980s, he says he saw overwhelmingly African American children, followed by a surge in Latino children, then a one- to two-year spike in what he called “yuppie lead poisoning” — cases of white suburban children who were exposed not because of low-quality housing, but through home renovations.

Now, poverty, not race, defines the patients that walk into his clinic, with an alarming surge from within the city’s growing non-native communities. Immigrants like Polanco, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic 10 years ago, are increasingly affected.

“The patient profile is changing again,” said Shannon. “It’s now people from all ethnic backgrounds, but almost always poor and so many of them are immigrants.”

Knowing that the problem is largely concentrated in several lower-income neighborhoods, the project’s leadership has worked to develop relationships with organizations that have a stake in the affected communities. ESAC and Urban Edge, a Jamaica Plain-based community organization, have increased outreach efforts to at-risk neighborhoods, and the Black Ministerial Alliance (BMA), a group of 80 faith-based organizations, has used its monthly breakfast meetings to educate pastors of black churches about lead safety.

To help expand the educational effort, information on lead dangers has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Portuguese Creole and Vietnamese to reach many of Boston’s immigrant populations, which account for a growing percentage of lead poisoning cases.

“These areas are changing,” said David Wright, executive director of the BMA. “You have black families, immigrant families, Spanish-speaking families coming into these neighborhoods and not understanding that they’re covered with lead, inside and out. They need to know it’s a problem, and then they need to know what to do about it.”

According to Susan DiMatteo, assistant director at the Homeowner Services Division of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, which controls the Lead Safe Boston program, federal grant money from HUD has increased the city’s ability to advance de-leading initiatives.

Boston has received $27.8 million from HUD since beginning the Lead Safe Boston program in 1993. Some of that money is available to property owners to help cover the cost of lead abatement, which can run from $8,000 to $14,000 per home.

“It can be a daunting prospect,” DiMatteo said. “But we want people to know that there are a lot of resources here, both financial and logistic.”

Polanco used those resources, and had her home de-leaded this past summer at no cost to her. She says she is grateful for the chance the city’s program gave her to make her home safe.

“I could not believe I was letting my daughter [be exposed] to that,” she said. “Everything she touched, everything she put in her mouth … now we don’t have to worry.”