Every Lakewood childhood should be lead-free

Lakewood has a lead problem.

No surprise there, really. Cleveland has a serious lead problem, and Lakewood was built in the same era with the same methods. The United States only banned lead-based paint in 1978; most of Lakewood’s housing is nearly a century old.

Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the human body, and the effects are not only harmful, but can be lifelong when lead poisoning occurs in childhood. At a recent symposium in Cleveland, Toledo City Councilman Larry Sykes noted that “those not treated early end up in an institution—often prison.”

There are two main reasons why lead remains a problem.

  • Obvious symptoms of lead exposure often aren’t immediate. So early intervention requires ongoing, year-in year-out testing.
  • The cost of lead-poisoning is high—special-needs education for children harmed by lead is more than double a school’s typical cost per student—but the costs aren’t immediate either. So it’s possible for one administration to cut safety programs and pass the costs to another.

That’s where Lakewood is now.

At town halls, I’ve heard residents talk about the great program Lakewood had only a decade ago. The city’s health department sent out a nurse, whenever you brought home a new baby, to check lead levels and help you protect your child if needed. The department even loaned out a HEPA-filter vacuum to clean up lead dust that’s a major risk. This program was called Lakewood Gets the Lead Out, and it was thorough.

You can still read about it, too, but only at the Internet Archive. In 2009 the city eliminated Lakewood Gets the Lead Out, along with our whole department of health. Supposedly we didn’t need one, because Cuyahoga County government has its own board of health.

But guess what: we have the same county board of health as Cleveland does, and Cleveland still has a big lead problem. Since we have many of the same risk factors as Cleveland, that means we have the same basic problem. Kids are getting exposed to lead.

The percentage of children with elevated lead levels is lower, in Lakewood, but that statistic only counts children who are tested. The screening rate in Lakewood is actually below the county average. As one resident said to me, “we use our children as canaries in the coal mine.” That’s wrong. The purpose of screening for lead exposure should be protecting real children and their futures, not generating statistics. We can meet that responsibility, too, much more easily than we can afford to look after permanently impaired children for years to come.

City Council has talked about lead a few times, in recent years, but so far not enough members are engaged to do more than this. I want to help change that. At a minimum we should do a better job of informing our community that this issue exists, and about how to keep children safe. We should also provides the resources they need, through an updated Lakewood Gets the Lead Out program.

When faced with a choice to fully fund testing and safety measures, or to fund special-needs education for the children who get missed by cutting corners, it shouldn’t be a tough choice.