Lead danger: By the numbers
• 2 the number of census tracts in Gainesville with risk levels at 10
• 8 the number of census tracts across Hall County with risk levels at 6 or higher
• 17,360 the number of children tested in Hall for lead poisoning between 2010 and 2014
• 33 the number of children in that time who had blood lead levels about the 10 ug/dL threshold
• 42 percent of Gainesville homes built in 1978 or earlier
• 32 percent of Hall County homes built in 1978 or earlier
More information: dph.georgia.gov/lead-data-and-reports. This report shows testing for all counties in Georgia. dph.georgia.gov/lead-education-and-faqs
The painters are brushing up as Melvean Strickland looks over the renovation of her family’s home in the historic Newtown neighborhood of Gainesville.
“I’m so impressed,” Strickland said on a recent afternoon, as childhood memories surge back to life and a smile cuts across her face. “I’ve got goosebumps.”
Vacant and abandoned for several years, Strickland’s home has been remodeled with the assistance of the city’s housing program.
The final touches of new paint are symbolic. Built in the late 1950s, lead paint had been used in the home, a potentially toxic substance that can have severe and irreversible health effects.
Lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978, leaving residents in Hall County’s oldest homes and neighborhoods at the highest risk level for poisoning, according to an October 2015 report from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“The correlation between older, poorly maintained homes with lead paint hazards and other housing-related disease exposures, such as asthma, are due to the likelihood of general deterioration and lack of maintenance that leads to health-associated environmental triggers,” the DPH report states.
Substandard rental housing is particularly risky, meaning many low-income families face the biggest threat.
And urban areas and industrial sections, which characterize Gainesville’s oldest neighborhoods, particularly those between Interstate 985 and Jesse Jewell Parkway/Browns Bridge Road, are known hot spots for cases where elevated blood levels for lead have been detected.
The threat of lead poisoning received renewed national attention last year after contaminated water was found in the Flint, Mich., drinking supply.
Rust-colored water was a telltale sign, according to reports, but lead is typically a silent poison without smell or taste.
Lead poisoning in young children can cause learning and physical disabilities, including impaired hearing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even result in convulsions, coma and death.
“No safe blood lead level in children has been identified,” according to the CDC. “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. Effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”
Though cities and states are not required to test or report data on lead poisoning exposure, Georgia has long done so.
Since 1994, the state has operated a program to eliminate childhood lead poisoning.
More than 42 percent of Gainesville’s housing stock, and nearly 32 percent of Hall County’s, is older than 1978, according to city surveys and census reports. That’s compared with about 40 percent of all homes across the state.
These numbers mean that Hall is one of just 14 counties in Georgia identified in the DPH report as being a high-risk community for poisoning resulting from lead paint.
The threat level is based on the number of children in 2013 with an elevated blood lead level.
Between 2010 and 2014, some 17,360 Hall County children younger than 6 were tested for lead. Of that total, 33 had elevated levels greater than or equal to 10 ug/dL (blood lead levels are measured in micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood) and 115 tested between 5-9 ug/dL.
Data for 2015 has not been reported yet.
“When an EBLL child is found through the screening process, public health conducts an environmental investigation in cases where levels are above 10,” Dave Palmer, spokesman for the District 2 Public Health office located in Gainesville, said. “The child is case managed until the lead level drops below 5.”
Reducing exposure to lead is the best method for decreasing blood lead levels, and foods rich in vitamin C, calcium and iron are recommended for children to help keep lead out of the body.
But lead is toxic and can cause neurological damage at any detectable exposure level, according to the CDC.
Some 2,500 children across Georgia tested positive for lead levels above 10 ug/dL in 2014.
A new map released this spring identifies several census tracts in the city of Gainesville where the threat is highest. Produced by Vox, an online news organization, in partnership with the Washington State Department of Health, the map calculates lead exposure risk nationally by census tract using housing and poverty data.
The map does not identify confirmed lead poisoning cases, but shows that two census tracts in Gainesville have the highest risk level on a scale of 1 to 10. And eight census tracts in the county have risk levels of six or higher on that scale.
“We only get involved in the abatement process if a known (elevated blood lead level) has occurred or is occurring, which are most frequently discovered during child physical examinations or during health screenings,” Palmer said.
The state recommends testing of children 6 years old and younger.
An adult intervention level is much higher and public health does not normally get involved in these cases unless extreme circumstances surround the case.
Several programs are in place locally to prevent and mitigate exposure to lead.
For example, the Gainesville Water Resources Department conducts lead testing of its water supply every three years at multiple points throughout the water distribution system as required by the Environmental Protection Division, according to director Linda MacGregor.
“We took 50 water samples for lead in 2015,” she said. “All of our samples were far below the action level of 15 (parts per billion) set by the EPD.”
The poisoning in Flint was a result of lead in pipes leaching into the water after that city changed sources and did not properly treat for corrosion control.
“In Gainesville, we do not have any lead pipe that we know of,” MacGregor said. “Over the past 13 years, we have replaced our meters and associated piping, some of which was lead or galvanized. Gainesville is not changing our water source and we do treat for corrosion control.”
County officials, meanwhile, said they require all water and sewer pipes to be constructed with PVC or ductile iron.
Chris Davis, Gainesville’s housing manager, said reducing lead-based paint hazards is a part of his division’s assessment protocol when performing rehabs on homes like Strickland’s, which includes testing and abating lead in all pre-1978 housing units assisted with federal grant funds.
Currently, the city contracts with Life Environmental Services, Inc. to conduct lead testing.
“The only issues we have are related to the amount of lead,” Davis said. “In some cases, lead costs can be excessive and far exceed what we can spend on a home. Otherwise, we resolve the issue when making the repairs.”
The Newtown Florist Club, a longtime civil rights organization, approached Gainesville City Council in 1993 to request testing of the water distributed in the Newtown neighborhood, executive director Rose Johnson said.
“In our records, it looks like the club began to work with the Morehouse School of Medicine and others to start testing for lead and doing community education,” Johnson said.
Elevated blood lead levels were detected at that time and the club began advocating for more testing in children.
In a document dated Jan. 26, 1994, Tim Merritt, then the city’s environmental services chief, wrote to the state EPD asking them to review this finding: “Of the 129 priority pollutants scanned, only lead, chromium, copper and zinc were found at levels above the detection limits.”
The Georgia Environmental Policy Institute provided support locally and helped convene a workshop titled “Lead exposures and how it affects our children,” according to Johnson.
More than 20 years later, the threat was discovered in Strickland’s home, with lead paint the culprit.
“A small exterior portion of the home tested positive for lead,” Theresa Dyer, Gainesville’s housing coordinator, said. “Once complete, we then have the area retested and inspected to confirm that it has been removed completely and properly.”
Additionally, a contractor removed and disposed of asbestos, a cancer-causing material once widely used for building insulation, found in the kitchen and bath, according to Dyer.
“We are not required to retest this area, only the lead area,” she said.
With the lead paint stripped, Strickland said she is relieved to know her home is now safe to live in. She’s already planning a homecoming party, ready to spend her golden years in a place she has known nearly all her life.
In a few weeks, she’ll move in her furniture, photo albums, decorations and keepsakes along with her stepson.
Strickland closes the front door for now, as a neighbor and two young children greet her from across the street.
When asked what she appreciates most about her home, she responds with ease.
“It’s the little things,” Strickland said.