Leadership to reduce and prevent lead exposure

By Katya Spear | Managing Director  Mayors Innovation Project

From educational campaigns, to access to water and soil testing kits, to procurement policies and lead pipe replacement programs, there are many impactful steps city leaders can take to help keep communities safe from lead exposure. One resource that has supported Mayors Innovation Project leaders over the past five years has been our partnership with Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a national non-profit that works to reduce neurotoxic exposures in pregnant women and young children.

Through this “Healthy Babies” partnership, we’ve supported more than 15 cities over five years through a grant program coupled with access to resources, technical assistance, and best practices.

“Lead is an invisible toxicant that harms our children’s brain development, with vast impact. Consider that lead exposure to children who were under the age of 6 in 2006 will result in a total income loss of between $165 and $233 billion. These projects have made the invisible visible by developing strategies ready to implement in your city that support brighter futures for the kids in all of our lives,” said Kyra Naumoff Shields, Bright Cities Program Director.

Many cities are working to prevent lead exposure through lead pipe replacement; today we feature a few other ways that local leaders can work to reduce and prevent lead exposure – all supported by the Healthy Babies Initiative (HBI):

Safe food and soils

Mayor welcomes volunteers and families to the community gardenAt the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities sought to support local residents in growing more of their own food (and indeed interest in gardens and gardening grew). But in many communities with aging housing stock, lead exposure is happening in a sneaky way—through lead-laced soils around old homes. This was the case in Lynn, MA, a city 10 miles north of Boston. Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee created a Food Security Task force charged with understanding and responding to gaps in food access and safety. As a result, the city expanded the hours and reach of its farmers market and subsidized produce costs for families with children under 10. It also partnered with a local organization to create the city’s first online food ordering system that helped source fresh produce, dry goods, and hot meals. Finally, to increase awareness of lead contaminated soils, Lynn staff developed informational resources for families to better understand why heavy metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic are common in local soils and what they can do to protect their families. HBBF has a lead safe garden guide you can use in your community!

Healthy homes

Two HBI communities in Wisconsin – Madison and Middleton – launched complimentary efficiency navigator programs that combine efforts to couple  that improve home energy use with those that reduce lead and mold in housing. The program targets resources to vulnerable families in aging housing stock using a data-informed approach, based on indicators like age of home, prevalence of environmental health concerns like asthma, and median household income.

In Grand Rapids, the city formed a Lead Free Kids GR Advisory Committee in response to an uptick in childhood lead poisoning. Recognizing that the primary point of exposure in Grand Rapids is through lead paint dust, and not water, the Committee identified rental housing inspection as one key opportunity to identify lead exposure before children are poisoned. The Committee’s work led to an amendment to the City’s housing code to require inspection of pre-1978 rental housing for deteriorated lead-based paint during the rental certification process. The code amendment was adopted by the Grand Rapids City Council in June 2023 has the potential to impact residents living in more than 24,000 rental units, having a significant reach.

How are you working to reduce lead poisoning in your community? Share your stories with us or head to HBBF’s Resources page for more ideas.