Flaking Out 

A reasonable person might think that eliminating lead would be a high priority for City Hall. It isn’t.

What I thought was interesting was the connection the girl saw between performance in school, self-esteem and violence.

And that got me thinking about lead — not the kind in bullets, the kind that comes in paint.

Lead poisoning is a big problem in Richmond. That’s because so much of the housing was built before 1978, when residential lead-based paint was banned by the federal government.

Lead paint tastes sweet. As it deteriorates, young children like to eat the flakes. They can also ingest the dust through hand-to-mouth activity. The result is an irreversible buildup of lead in their young bodies.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, a lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood — about 10 one-millionths of a gram per half cup — can affect a child’s ability to learn. Higher levels can damage the kidneys and reproductive systems. Very high levels can result in mental retardation, convulsions, coma and death.

Most vulnerable are children younger than 3, according to Nancy Van Voorhis, director of Lead-Safe Virginia, a state Health Department program. Van Voorhis said all Richmond is considered a high-risk area for lead poisoning, and that every child in the city limits should be tested. But that’s not happening.

In 2002, Richmond had 7,608 children younger than 3 considered at risk for lead poisoning. Only 1,672 were tested, barely one out of five. Van Voorhis said 8 percent showed an elevated lead level. The statewide average was 2.2 percent.

Yet that 8 percent figure is a citywide average. Lead paint is more common in older, poorer neighborhoods — where the school test scores are lower and street violence higher.

Nancy Van Voorhis believes there’s a connection. “A lot of the problems of Richmond’s children can be caused by lead poisoning,” she said.

R.M. “Reggie” Malone Sr., who represents the East End’s 7th District on the Richmond School Board, also thinks lead is a factor in both poor school performance and violence. “The kids get to the point where they can’t control themselves,” he said.

The city’s most recent Standards of Learning test results show an improvement in the Richmond Public Schools, but that improvement is relative. Last year, less than half the Richmond students who entered high school in 1999 were around to graduate as seniors, Malone said. And he estimates that 13 to 15 percent of the pupils in school are enrolled in special education classes.

It’s hard to believe that lead poisoning doesn’t play a role.

A reasonable person might think that eliminating lead would be a high priority for City Hall. It isn’t. Richmond has one city-sponsored program charged with preventing lead poisoning: Lead-Safe Richmond. It comes under the city Health Department, but most of its funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The program is operating under a 30-month, $3 million HUD grant intended to fund lead-abatement work in 235 housing units. The goal is tiny compared to the scope of the problem. In applying for the grant, the city stated that more than 67,000 housing units in Richmond could contain lead hazards.

And yet the city has allowed even this modest program to run into trouble. By early January 2004 — 23 months into the grant — fully $2.3 million of the original $3 million remained unspent, according to John Baker, the regional HUD official charged with overseeing the grant. As a result, Baker said he sent a letter to City Manager Calvin D. Jamison warning that unless there was an improvement by March 31, HUD could pull the grant and deny the city future grants for as long as 10 years. At stake is as much as $12 million.

Zakia Shabazz is founder and director of the Richmond-based advocacy group United Parents Against Lead. She is also director of Richmond Leadbusters, a community-education component of Lead-Safe Richmond. On Jan. 12, she urged Richmond City Council and City Manager Jamison to save the program. The statement she read before council had been endorsed by three dozen religious, civil rights, labor and civic leaders, including Malone and fellow School Board member Stephen Johnson of the 5th District.

The following day, Shabazz and representatives of the Richmond NAACP and the community group Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality met with City Auditor Lance Kronzer. He agreed to open an investigation into Lead-Safe Richmond to find out why the program was allowed to fall behind schedule, and also to determine if there’d been any financial misconduct in the administration of the HUD grant. Kronzer said he hoped to complete his investigation by March 31.

City Hall has been showing signs of paying more attention to the program. Time will tell if the effort will be successful. But even if the HUD grant is saved, the overall problem of tens of thousands of at-risk homes and children will remain.

In interviews, Shabazz, Malone and Van Voorhis all made the same recommendation: Test every public school pupil in the city for lead. Having an elevated lead level doesn’t condemn a child to a life of learning disabilities or crime. The earlier the lead can be detected, the more chance there is to prevent the lead-poisoning symptoms.

Addressing lead hazards in a serious way won’t eliminate all the educational and social problems facing Richmond’s youth today. But it would help. And it would send a message to the children that we truly care about them and want to protect them.

It’s a message they may not be hearing. S

Phil Wilayto is a Richmond-based free-lance writer and a member of the Richmond community activist group Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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