Activists sleep out at City Hall to draw attention to the urgent need to address lead poisoning
by Bruce Checefsky
Childhood lead poisoning has increased dramatically since COVID-19. Day care closures and stay-at-home orders have confined young children to their homes, increasing the likelihood of exposure to the toxic metal. Many medical centers where testing routinely took place were closed. In Ohio, for example, 51% fewer children were tested for blood levels in May 2020 compared to May 2019.
In Cleveland about 90% of homes are lead impacted, according to Yvonka Hall co-founder of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network in 2016. Hall was a principal organizer along with Black on Black Crime Inc and Black Lives Matter Cuyahoga County, calling on Clevelanders to Sleep Out At City Hall to call attention to what they say is an urgent need for action against lead poisoning in Cleveland.
Groups supporting the initiative claim City Hall has been slow to implement the Lead Safe Certificate Ordinance passed in 2019, a law that came about only after sustained citizen-led protests. (A spokesperson for the mayor declined to comment on the City of Cleveland lead poisoning prevention efforts during the pandemic.)
The Lead Safe Certificate Ordinance requires all landlords to pay for private inspections and secure lead-safe certificates for their rental units. The law also requires additional disclosures to renters and homebuyers about whether a home has an identified lead hazard. Expected to have taken effect on March 1, 2021, and rolled out by zip code, the law requires owners of rentals built before 1978 to have their properties inspected for lead hazards every two years. Cleveland’s Building and Housing Department will require all rentals to be certified as lead safe by 2023. The legislation also doubles the rental registration fee, raising it from $35 to $70. The city will not perform the lead-safe certification examinations. Landlords will have to hire private inspectors.
There is no safe level of exposure to lead. A highly toxic metal and very strong poison, lead poisoning is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. It can disrupt neurological and cognitive development, causing learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and developmental delays.
Lead is found in lead-based paints, including paint on the walls of old houses and toys. It is also found in art supplies and contaminated dust.
According to event organizers, lead testing has continued to decline over the past 4 years. The Department of Building and Housing has registered fewer than 100 rental homes as lead safe, despite expecting thousands of landlords to come forward with proof that their properties would not cause childhood lead poisoning.
Activist Jeff Mixon, a former local head of Black Lives Matter and candidate for Cleveland City Council Ward 7, stood on the steps of City Hall talking to people gathered for the rally and overnight sleep out protest. Mayoral candidates Justin Bibb, Dennis Kucinich, and Zak Reed were standing behind him.
“The Lead Safe Certificate Ordinance which was supposed to start March 1 is not being implemented,” Mixon said. “We know landlords with properties with lead poisoning are renting them out to families with kids. It’s unacceptable.”
Mixon quoted a recent study from Milwaukee on lead positing, which indicated that over 50% of the gun violence in that city was attributed to lead poisoning. The study done at UWM’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health used public health, education and criminal justice datasets covering more than 89,000 people born in Milwaukee between June 1, 1986, and December 31, 2003, with a valid blood lead test before they were 6 years old. Researchers found that as childhood blood lead levels increased, the risk for becoming a perpetrator or victim of gun violence increased, even after controlling for temporal trends, gender, race and neighborhood socioeconomic status, according to the UWM report from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The findings were bolstered by known links between lead exposure and the brain, especially through impairing future decision-making and increasing impulsiveness, traits that may influence criminal behavior.
Erika Jarvis, a board member of Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing, recalled what it was like to be twice poisoned by lead paint. Hall said lead paint chips taste sweet like candy. More often, children under the age of five are poisoned. The side effects take years to manifest.
“I’m an expert in lead poisoning,” Jarvis told the crowd. “I’m an expert in the worst way. I can remember as a young child getting my blood drawn weekly because my lead level was so high. The sweetness of paint chips altered my brain.”
Jarvis said her grandmother had to warn teachers that her mood swings could be extreme. She criticized Cleveland’s Department of Health for not working with the Department of Building and Housing, and said she was ‘amazed’ that a major paint company can relocate their world headquarters to downtown Cleveland, the same company responsible for lead poisoning, in a city with staggering health statistics. She called out all seven mayoral candidates for leaving the topic untouched in their campaign speeches and debates.
“It’s amazing to me how seven mayoral candidates had an entire debate about important issues such as crime, poverty, and public health, and lead poisoning was never once mentioned. Our children should not have to suffer,” said Jarvis.
Hall, an activist deeply impassioned and involved in social justice activities, Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition as well as co-founder of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network and co-founder of CLASH (Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing), reminded the three mayoral candidates that the Sleep Out at City Hall City protest was not a media opportunity for them.
“You’re not going to make this into a political thing. If you’re not willing to address this issue then leave now,” said Hall, addressing the candidates. She requested the next mayor should hire a lead safe administrator to coordinate various departments responsible for removing lead hazards from the community. The lead czar would have administrative oversight in coordinating the Department of Building and Housing for lead safe housing, and Department of Public Health. The Department of Law would be responsible for enforcing lead violations, according to her. Bibb, Kucinich, and Reed pledged to make lead paint poisoning a top priority in their administration during a succession of brief stump speeches.
Mixon headed to a grassy patch in front City Hall following the speeches along with several other protesters ready to camp out for the night.
“We need leaders to do the right thing,” he said.