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Notre Dame researchers work to develop accessible lead testing in South Bend

| Thursday, December 12, 2019

Eighty percent of homes in South Bend were built before lead paint was banned in 1978. Children living in such homes are most susceptible to the dangers of lead exposure — including life-long cognitive and behavioral impairments. 

Notre Dame has partnered with the community in an effort to address this issue. Researchers created a lead sample collection kit at a low cost — but it may not be the silver bullet to the community they hoped.

The lead problem in South Bend is a public health issue, meaning that St. Joseph County is responsible for addressing the problem. However, there is not enough state funding for the county to be able to help all of the people dealing with lead-filled homes. 

Emily Dean is a community health worker for the Near Northwest Neighborhood organization (NNN) in South Bend. She also lives in a historic home in the NNN with her two kids — Finn, age five, and Declan, age three. She said the city has stepped up efforts to deal with the lead problem.

“Information had just come out that kids living in a certain part of the Near Northwest Neighborhood had the highest childhood lead poisoning rate in the state,” she said. “The director at the NNN said OK well we’ve gotta do something from a neighborhood level because it just didn’t seem like from the county-health level things were happening at the rate that they should.”

Paige Ambord, a graduate research fellow for the city of South Bend and a resident of the NNN, said the city has relied on blood testing kids to identify those most in need of help.

“So we did these lead testing events all over at different schools and what it is is a finger prick and then they test the blood, they run the results, they send them to the County Health Department, the County Health Department contacts families,” she said. 

The County Health Department is then responsible for remediating the family’s home. However, removing all lead from a house is a time-intensive and costly process. 

“A certified lead-risk assessor will go to the person’s home with an expensive machine called an XRF and do a full lead risk assessment at the home,” said Dr. Heidi Beidinger from the Notre Dame Lead Innovation Team (ND LIT). The team has worked with the community to facilitate the screening of houses. 

Beidinger said ND LIT has created a lead sample collection kit that could give residents some information about lead in their homes, without having to wait for the county. 

“So is there a way for us to do something where people could collect samples themselves in a really easy way and then send it here to Notre Dame and then we could test it for them and then we could provide them a result? And that’s exactly what we did,” she said.

 Beidinger said a lot of research went into creating this kit.

“Well how do you know where to find the lead in the house?” she said. “Well it’s through two summers of research that we figured out where the most likely hot spots are in a person’s home.”

Dean explained how she used the kit in her own home to find such hot spots.

“So the directions kind of tell you where to get certain samples so it focuses on window sills, some dust from areas that aren’t dusted often, and then like at the entrance to your house,” she said. “So the kit kind of directs you to some potential hotspots. But as far as gathering the samples, I mean it really could not be easier like every single thing you need is in there and it’s easily marked which bag you use and which spoon you use and everything, you really just fill it out. It’s very straightforward.”

Beidinger said the kit is not just easy to use, it’s accurate.

“Through our research we found that we have a 96% accuracy with that kit. So if there’s lead at the house, we’re finding it,” she said.

While accurate, the kit is not meant to replace the county’s job of assessing a house. For Dean the kit was just a starting point for assessing lead in her home.

“I was able to use [the kit] on my house first and then the results from that prompted me to then get a full lead-risk assessment on my house and also apply for a lead-protection program grant which I was able to get,” she said. “And we ended up getting a full lead abatement on our home, which was amazing.”

Although Dean was able to qualify for a grant to remediate her home, others with lead in their house are not so lucky due to high expenses. 

Dean said some people will do the kit, not get a grant and then get stuck with a lead problem. 

“I know of three neighbors that qualified and went through all the stuff and then it just came back too expensive so they didn’t get the work done, they couldn’t get the work done,” she said.

The ND LIT kit can give homeowners results on their own time, but it’s the county that actually funds lead abatement. Without the kit, lead is first found when a child comes up with lead poisoning.  

Beidinger said the kit could address that larger ethical problem.

“For years, really decades, the way that we detect lead in the environment is based on a child’s blood lead test. It’s immoral,” Beidinger said. “We have to shift that paradigm. We can’t rely on children’s bodies to find lead. We need to be proactive in our society and find the lead before children are poisoned.”

Ideally, residents would use the kit preventatively and not have to stick a needle in their child to find out whether or not they are lead poisoned. However, the blood tests are much more accessible to the community since they are funded by the city. 

“It’s this really weird point where we want more kids to get tested but we also want that to no longer be the way that parents find out there’s a hazard in their home,” Dean said. “So we don’t want to stop that push of encouraging people to get tested and we want the testing rate to increase in our neighborhood and around the city and everywhere where this is potentially a problem. But at the same time, it’s crazy to me that parents don’t find out that they have lead hazards in their home until their kid has lead poison.”

Lead abatement is full of catch 22s. The county can test your home, but it maybe can’t fix it. The city can help test your child for lead, but it doesn’t control the abatement grants. You want to catch lead before a child is poisoned, but the kit isn’t official yet. 

The city can’t hand the kit out. And the county can’t use it as a basis for lead abatement. 

“The Notre Dame kits right now would not be considered verified to apply for a [Department of Housing and Urban Development] grant,” Ambord said. “Only going to the actual County Health Department counts as an official verification of a lead risk. Really the problem is the city can’t give out the kit because if we gave out the kit and people found out they had a lead problem, we would be culpable and we don’t necessarily have the funding,”

It could be a long time before the kits are considered an official verification of lead risk. Until then, ND LIT is trying to find safe, low-cost ways for kit users to clean up lead zones in their home once they’ve been found.

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