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Cleveland now has the money to address the city's lead problem. So what are they going to do about it?

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Lisa Ryan
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Ideastream Public Media
Lead abatement advocate Robin Brown (middle) talks to local and national government officials about what she would like to see done to prevent lead poisoning.

Health officials and government leaders met Monday to address lead poisoning in Northeast Ohio. They’ll soon be deciding how to use more than $100 million in grants and donations to prevent lead poisoning.

In January, the Cleveland Clinic announced it would donate $50 million over five years to the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition. That brought the total amount raised to more than $100 million, which was the organization's goal.

The question now is how that money will be used.

The problem is widespread. In Cleveland, many residents have difficulty finding housing safe from lead because more than 90% of rental homes were built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned in the U.S., according to the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to make homes safer is to paint over the lead paint so children can’t get to it, but that’s only a temporary solution, according to Cuyahoga County Board of Health Deputy Director John Sobolewski.

“You’re not going to fully eliminate lead-based paint, you’re going to remediate it so it doesn’t present a hazard for a period of time," he said.

More permanent lead abatement strategies include replacing windows in old homes, but Sobolewski said permanent lead abatement can become prohibitively expensive.

Short-term fixes include painting over the lead paint on the exterior of a house, but that solution may only last 5-10 years, he said. A longer-term fix would be to put vinyl siding over the lead paint, which would reduce the hazard for as long as the siding was in place. But that's still not a permanent solution.

Lead paint can cause developmental delays and behavioral issues in children.

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Raevin Martin
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3-year-old Raphael (left) and his brother, 4-year-old Phillip (right) pose for a picture. Their mother, Raevin Martin, is advocating for lead education and abatement to prevent elevated blood lead levels in kids.

Raevin Martin didn't know that when she rented a house with lead paint. She has two young children, and she moved when lead was detected in their blood.

Martin said she would like to see money put toward education about the dangers of lead poisoning.

“Educate people — not just people but our younger generations and younger parents about lead and how it affects our children," she said.

So far, her kids have been fine, but she said her sister's children have speech impediments.

Monday's roundtable didn't result in any solutions or next steps, but Sobolewski is optimistic that with more money and more collaboration than ever before, the issue will be addressed.

"Don't see this as people coming to the table because now there's money, but it's people that have been committed to the cause, and now there's money to actually move things forward," he said.

Mayor Justin Bibb has said he would make lead abatement one of his priorities. He appointed Karen Dettmer to oversee the city’s efforts on lead abatement.

Local groups, including Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing, had previously called on the Bibb administration to appoint a "lead czar" to speed up the lead abatement in the city and screen more children for lead.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 34% fewer children had their blood lead levels screened in 2020 compared to 2019.