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Notes from the Field

Why We All Should Care about Lead

Though the need to remediate lead seems to be a public health issue with a housing-based solution, the impacts of this crisis are far-reaching. Lead poisoning impacts all of us. The more people and organizations see themselves as part of the solution, the more likely we’ll find success.

The topic of lead poisoning—a problem stemming from the aged housing stock of Cleveland—is back in the spotlight after the release of two studies from the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University.1, 2The studies revealed several key findings: nearly 94 percent of kindergarten students in Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) from 2014 through 2017 tested positive for lead exposure, 25.7 percent of those children registered lead levels at or above the threshold of concern, and children with high levels of lead exposure were only half as likely as their peers to be kindergarten ready, even after extended participation in a high-quality preschool program.

Seeing these alarming statistics, the public called for action, and local leadership responded with a proposal: On January 22, 2019, Mayor Frank Jackson and City Council President Kevin Kelley announced Lead Safe Cleveland, a framework to protect children from exposure to lead in the home.* While many strategic details—such as goals and timelines, resources for residents and property owners, and code enforcement strategies—remain to be worked out, the commitment from Mayor Jackson and Council President Kelley is a promising first step.

During the announcement, a group of community stakeholders joined Mayor Jackson and Council President Kelley on the stage. The stakeholders represent a coalition that has laid the groundwork for the effort to end lead poisoning by identifying national best practices for lead remediation and funding. While it currently includes many capable and dedicated community leaders, the coalition must broaden to include more organizations working towards the same goal. An expanded coalition will be vital to the ongoing development and implementation of the city’s plan and, ultimately, the success of this effort.

One key step in broadening the coalition is expanding the way we think about the issue of lead poisoning. Though the need to remediate lead seems to be a public health issue with a housing-based solution, the impacts of this crisis are far reaching. Lead is an education issue, a workforce and economic development issue, and a racial equity issue. Local stakeholders and citizens have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in initiatives aimed at improving the health, educational outcomes, and economic futures of our residents; lead poisoning poses a real threat to the effectiveness of these efforts. When we think more broadly, particularly about the long-term impacts, it is much more likely that we will uncover solutions that achieve meaningful change.

Educational initiatives such as PRE4CLE, UPK, the Cleveland Plan, and the recently announced Say Yes to Education represent a pipeline of support for Cleveland children to achieve academic excellence. However, if (according to the Case studies) 25 percent of the children entering this pipeline are not kindergarten-ready because of the impacts of lead poisoning, it is not unreasonable to question how lead exposure will affect these education improvement plans. Research has found a connection between kindergarten readiness and third grade reading proficiency3. Relatedly, third grade reading proficiency has been linked with future school success including high school graduation.4

The effects of lead poisoning are not limited to correlations with education success. Workforce and economic development efforts championed by the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, JobsOhio, and others can be undermined by the long-term impacts of lead, too. Lead-poisoned children grow up and enter the workforce; are programs such as TalentNEO, Wage Pathways Program, and Workforce Connect less effective at helping formerly poisoned Cleveland children learn the skills needed to meaningfully engage in the regional workforce? The same question applies for Blockland Cleveland and any other economic development effort prioritized by local leaders.

It is unlikely that we can answer any of these questions with certainty. But we can, and should, think about how lead poisoning impacts all of us—even if the ways are not readily apparent. For the Community Development team at the Cleveland Fed, the long-term impacts of lead poisoning affect the economic mobility and resilience of low- and moderate-income communities, and show up in each of our priority areas: housing, workforce and economic development, and small business. Solving the issue of lead poisoning may not be easy, but it stands to reason that chances for success are much better if more people and organizations see themselves as part of the solution.

*This sentence has been edited from the original (03.20.19)

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

  1. Fischer, Rob, Stephen Steh, and Tsui Chan. 2019. Early Childhood Lead Exposure among Cleveland Kindergarteners by Neighborhood and School Enrollment. Return to 1
  2. Anthony, Elizabeth, Stephen Steh, Meghan Salas Atwell, and Rob Fischer. 2019. Early Childhood Lead Exposure in Cuyahoga County and the Impact on Kindergarten Readiness. Return to 2
  3. Logan, Jessica, Laura M. Justice, and Jill Pentimonti. 2014. Ready to Read and School Success. Return to 3
  4. Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2010. Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. Return to 4