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Lead poisoning continues to pose threat in county



Published: Sat, July 7, 2007 @ 12:00 a.m.

Grants are available to help homeowners to dispense of lead dangers.

By ANGIE SCHMITT

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

Except for their place on the list, it’s difficult to distinguish the 275 Mahoning County properties known to be lead hazards from their surroundings.

They melt into the background on Youngstown’s North Side and in the South. They pepper neighborhoods on the East Side and in the West. Offending addresses are scattered as far as Campbell, Struthers and Sebring.

For every property on the Mahoning County Board of Health’s lead hazards list, however, there is a history with at least one child that has suffered the debilitating affects of lead poisoning.

The board of health hopes to have each of the properties remediated or demolished by 2010. Until then, the list is to serve as a warning for potential renters and home buyers, said Health Commissioner Matthew Stefanak.

Despite drastic reductions in diagnoses since the late 1990s, Stefanak said lead poisoning continues to be the greatest environmental health hazard facing Mahoning County. The problem is particularly pronounced in Youngstown, where more than 90 percent of the homes were constructed before 1978 — when lead paint was outlawed.

Children being diagnosed

More than 7,000 Mahoning County children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning since the health board began monitoring the disease in 1996. Those diagnosed often struggle with learning disabilities, hyperactivity and delinquency. Lead poisoned children are seven times more likely to drop out of high school and more likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system than their healthy counterparts, according to the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Baltimore.

In recent years however, the percentage of local children diagnosed with lead poisoning has declined dramatically thanks to a cooperative effort among Mahoning County Board of Health, local government agencies, health-care providers and real estate groups. Last year, 77 children tested positive for the disease — or 3.2 percent of children tested. In 1995, at the height of the problem, 933 county children were diagnosed — or 27 percent of those tested.

“We’re enjoying success, but the war’s not over yet,” Stefanak said.

Under the board of health’s supervision, in the past three years, more than 150 lead-hazardous properties have been demolished or remediated, Stefanak said. With every lead hazard eliminated, the incidence of lead poisoning falls, he said.

Fixing contaminated homes

The Lora Avenue home of Charles Goolsby on Youngstown’s North Side is among the list of 275 houses, both abandoned and occupied, said to be lead hazards.

He remembers inspectors came and examined his home, he said. “They brought detecting machines in and checked the whole house,” he said.

Since, Goolsby said he’s painted the outside of his house, as he was instructed. It also underwent a major remodeling. He said he’s confident the danger has been eliminated. There are no young children in the house.

Remediating a lead-contaminated home can be a simple process, but it also can be expensive, said Stefanak. Many remediations cost up to $15,000, he said.

“It can be as extensive as replacing windows and door frames and paneling over walls,” Stefanak said. “Or it can be as modest an intervention as simply painting over walls.”

The board of health wants homeowners on the list to know grants are available for remediation based on income. “There are ample grant dollars available for homeowners and landlords in this community that want to make their homes safe,” he said.

Not done yet

Although paint chips have traditionally been blamed in lead poisoning cases, experts now believe most cases are caused by dust from deteriorating lead paint.

Lingering lead problems also burden local taxpayers, said Stefanak. He estimates that local taxpayers spend $500,000 per year as a result of lead poisoning in medical costs, testing and special education.

Ruth Ann Norton, of the coalition, said Mahoning County’s progress toward eliminating lead poisoning is keeping pace with the rest of the nation. “It absolutely sounds like you’ve made incredible progress,” she said.

She said she is cautious about praising any community before lead poisoning has been completely eliminated, she said. “There has been such success over the past decade and a half that what I fear is that there will be complacency,” said Norton. “We’re down to the most distressed housing.

“If you start to say, ‘we’ve gotten 80 or 90 percent, there that’s enough,’ — that’s really not enough on something you can fix.”


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