Children in Northeast Ohio are being poisoned by lead at rates far above the national average. Exposure to lead at a young age can have devastating effects on children, impacting virtually every aspect of their lives. Children who experience lead poisoning often have stunted cognitive and behavioral development and lower educational attainment. Research has also suggested a correlation between lead poisoning in childhood and a tendency toward violent behaviors in early adulthood or adolescence. Together, we need to ensure that future generations are no longer denied the opportunity to succeed because of this persistent, preventable problem.
As a community, we have a not-so-prudent track record of managing funds dedicated to limit children’s exposure to lead dating back to the 1950s. As Cleveland.com and others have reported, of the 187,000 homes estimated to be laden with lead-based paints in Cuyahoga County, we’ve cleaned up about 4,300 since 1993, so there is clearly more work to do. At the state level, the Ohio General Assembly created the Lead Prevention Fund in 2003, but didn’t end up contributing any resources to the fund. But, while we’re all aware of the bureaucratic failures of the past, it’s important we understand just how complex this issue is as we come up with solutions.
The effects of lead poisoning are truly detrimental to a child’s development. High exposures of lead can often cause developmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, reduced attention span and increased antisocial behavior in children. In addition to the impact on the child’s life, the societal costs are similarly troubling. With years of record crime rates in the city of Cleveland, it’s worth reviewing recent research about similar cities, which sheds light on the undeniable link between lead poisoning and violent crime.
Typically, when we discuss issues that limit the ability of our children to grow, we talk about things like hunger, transportation and education. Lead poisoning is different because of its interconnectedness with other aspects of a child’s life. Not only are we talking about health, but we’re also talking about education, violence and economic opportunities – all of which can be directly tied back to exposure at a young age.
Perhaps most startling for our region is the disparity in who is affected by this crisis. This correlation between income, race and ethnicity and likely exposure to lead poisoning is simply inexcusable. As a recent story by the New York Times highlighted, 7.7 percent of the nation’s Black children under 6 years old had elevated levels of lead in their blood. In the Cleveland neighborhood of Glenville, that number more than tripled, with 26.5 percent of children testing positive for lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning is different from the persistent social and race-related disparities our region continues to face, mostly because we know what is required to fix it. Additionally, we know what community investments mean for our future generations. A 2009 study, covered in the New York Times article mentioned above, reported that every dollar spent on removing lead-based hazards generated $211 in benefits in terms of increased productivity, greater tax receipts, lower healthcare and education costs, and reductions in crime. The evidence is undeniable and, as a community, it’s essential that we make the right investments to ensure all children have an equal shot at success.
Failure to address this problem as a community will only perpetuate the inequity that exists for our inner-city children. We need to come together, as policymakers, foundations, governmental departments and business partners, to ensure children in Greater Cleveland have the education and opportunities they deserve. We do a great job of being “All In” for our beloved sports teams – we should commit to being “All In” for our future generations as well.