Tackling lead on the East Side and across the state

courtesy of East Side Neighborhood Development Company For the first year of a program created by the East Side Neighborhood Development Company — called the LeadSafeMN Initiative — three East Side census tracts where children showed high levels of lead in their blood were the focus. LeadSafeMN aims to create funding sources and resources to bring lead poisoning down to zero. The initiative will eventually address the 40 census tracts statewide where kids are testing for high levels of lead.

courtesy of East Side Neighborhood Development Company The East Side Neighborhood Development Company has worked with a number of partners to collect data that looks at the correlation between housing and poverty and high lead levels in children across the City of St. Paul.

Lead poisoning is often thought of as a problem from the past, one that has been solved through requirements for safer paints and materials in homes.  

However, it’s still very much a problem, one that has come back to the forefront due to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where water was tainted with lead due to incorrectly treated water flowing through lead pipes.  

In the Twin Cities, the issue of lead poisoning ties back to homes, mostly in older housing stock, and most often in homes that are rentals in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

It’s an issue that the East Side Neighborhood Development Company has been working on for more than 10 years, by partnering with Ramsey County to replace old windows and encapsulate lead paint.

Most recently, the development company is working to not only eliminate lead poisoning on the East Side, but also to expand its work across the state by providing ways to rid homes of lead and create policies and funding sources through an initiative called LeadSafeMN. 

The program has been underway for just over a year and recently earned East Side Neighborhood Development Company a Public Health Award from Ramsey County. 


A statewide issue

In Minnesota, there are 40 census tracts where kids — ages six months to 6 years old — are testing for dangerously high levels of lead. Dangerously high means five or more micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, as established by national health standards. 

The most common way kids are poisoned by lead is by ingesting paint chips that come off of old windows. Kids ages 1 to 3 are the most sensitive to lead poisoning, as those ages are critical to brain development. 

Lead poisoning can cause a number of issues, including learning, behavioral and health problems, according to Ramsey County Public Health. 

Of those 40 census tracts, the East Side contains six, many in areas with old housing stock, high levels of renters and majorities of low income residents. 

Other Minnesota lead hotspots include areas in Frogtown, the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, North Minneapolis, areas in Fillmore County, Albert Lea, the Central Hillside neighborhood in Duluth, Montevideo and areas in Lac Qui Parle County. 

The initiative’s efforts began with a focus on three census tracts on the East Side, which include parts of Dayton’s Bluff, Railroad Island and Payne-Phalen, said development company Executive Director John Vaughn. The focus will remain on the East Side for the next two years.

“It’s an equity issue,” Vaughn said, explaining that while the issue of lead poisoning has been virtually eradicated, the last 3% of kids still being poisoned are those living in “poor and diverse” neighborhoods.

“Everyone seems to forget about it, but it’s structural racism,” he said. “It’s no accident that Minnesota has the highest health and education disparities.”

LeadSafeMN includes partnerships with Ramsey County and St. Catherine University, which help to test kids, collect data and connect families with programming to get lead out of homes, such as the window replacement program.

Vaughn said the initiative also aims to create a statewide coalition that will meet this fall with the goal of pushing legislators to establish a $40 million fund for window replacements for those 40 census tracts with high lead levels.

“This approach is an equity approach,” he said. Instead of making the funds available across the state — which Illinois did a few years ago — the initiative wants them to be available just to those 40 census tracts.

“We want to go in and fix the areas that are all poor and diverse and get them up to an equal level with the rest of the state,” Vaughn said. 


Community events

Besides pushing to establish the window replacement fund, the initiative also focuses on community forums and events where kids can get tested for lead and families can find tools to help prevent lead poisoning. 

Most recently, the team — which includes three full-time staffers who are also public health educators — went down to Albert Lea for a community event. One of those LeadSafeMN staffers, Jennifer Beckenbach, said they tested 27 kids, nine pregnant women and one father.

She added that on Friday, April 26, from noon to 3 p.m., East Side Neighborhood Development Company will hold a community education event about lead at its offices at 965 Payne Ave. There, families can get tested for lead, learn about the causes of lead poisoning and get free HEPA vacuums, Brita pitchers, toys, bikes and food.  

Vaughn said tackling the issue of lead and cleaning up homes to prevent lead poisoning is a perfect example of how affordable housing and public health are directly linked, and how it ties into health and education. “We’ve really embraced the nexus of public health and housing.”

To connect with the LeadSafe Initiative or to discuss concerns about lead in your home, contact Jennifer Beckenbach at the LeadSafeMN Initiative at 612-223-3172.


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com

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