Taking the Lead on Lead in Toledo, Ohio

Lead poisoning earned a national spotlight when the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, began in 2014. Yet the public health risk of a substance the Department of Housing and Urban Development labels as “dangerous” and “toxic” persists not only in municipal water supplies, but also within the walls of residential buildings. This story looks at the efforts of Toledo, Ohio, to both mitigate and prevent lead poisoning cases — and the legal challenges that come along with them. Cover graphic by Ramona Wolff for Midstory.

Marilynne Wood first began researching lead poisoning in Toledo in order to investigate its potential correlation with school dropout and crime rates. A professor emeritus at the University of Toledo’s College of Nursing, her team started by speaking with nurses and screening children’s lead levels at local charter schools.

Throughout the process, Wood was able to confirm her suspicions: that the students struggling with behavioral and academic issues typically tested for elevated lead levels in their bodies.

“We know that there’s some connection. We know that kids, especially in the younger grades like third and fourth grade, are trying really, really hard to stay on task, not be the class clown — but they just can’t keep up with their peers,” Wood said. “When [I] go into the schools, the school nurse and the teacher say, ‘Please test Jason, please test Sally.’ And sure enough, these kids are having issues with elevated lead.”

Children can experience lead poisoning from a variety of sources, Wood said, including soil and even parents with occupations that expose them to lead, such as welding. But much of the danger originates within the walls of their own homes, where chipped and worn-down paint exposes children to its harmful contents.

In 1978, the U.S. government outlawed lead-based paint for residential use nationwide, citing an “unreasonable risk of lead poisoning in children.” This ban has been fairly successful as a whole, as the HUD’s 2021 “American Healthy Homes Survey II Lead Findings” report concluded that just 29.4% of U.S. homes contain lead-based paint.

But that prevalence drastically increases with older homes — the report found that 51.6% of homes constructed before 1978 still have lead-based paint. That discrepancy comes into sharp focus in cities with older residential buildings: According to Wood, 92% of Toledo’s current housing stock was built before 1978. As a result of this outdated infrastructure, the city still confronts a considerable lead poisoning issue — and due to historical housing discrimination, children of color and poor children disproportionately suffer the consequences.

The 41 census tracts highlighted in the map contain high concentrations of pre-1940 housing and low-income families, and are where the City of Toledo is focusing on mitigating lead exposure.

“Literally you can take the redlining map from 1938 and identify where children are getting poisoned today, and the red areas match up to the incidence of child lead poisoning,” George Thomas, vice president and general counsel of the Toledo Fair Housing Center, said.

For years, Toledo has worked to address the problem through legislation. It initially passed a lead safety ordinance in 2016, before legal challenges dampened its impact. In 2020, the city council passed an updated version; it targets 1-4-unit rentals and childcare homes built prior to 1978, calling for them to receive inspections and safety certifications.

Toledo partly modeled its legislation after the 2005 lead ordinance of Rochester, New York. In a 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that the Rochester ordinance effectively reduced lead hazards without significantly impacting the housing market.

The Environmental Protection Agency also announced a childhood lead safety initiative in October that focuses on education and outreach in 10 elevated-risk communities across the country, including Toledo. So far, the EPA has partnered with the city and the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department to host an “Understanding Lead” education session in November and a lead paint repair workshop in December, according to Toledo Lead Safe Coordinator Monica Smith.

Working alongside the city government and county health department to address lead is the Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition, an organization that concentrates on community education and advocacy for safety measures. According to member Gloria Smith, the group is currently focused on helping implement the lead safety ordinance. She added that one of the coalition’s first members, Robert Cole, co-wrote the original 2016 ordinance. 

Gloria Smith serves on the coalition’s Education/Community Engagement Subcommittee, which she said works with regional health care groups to coordinate lead poisoning prevention initiatives. Members take on projects like developing and distributing lead safety brochures to Toledo Public School parents.

Gloria Smith’s work with the coalition complements her full-time job as lead case manager for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department. There are 3,400 children suffering from lead poisoning in Lucas County, she said, and she manages more than 400 lead poisoning cases for children between 1 and 6 at a time. Once the health department identifies elevated lead levels in a child, she and her team of lead investigators probe the source of lead through interviews with the family and a risk assessment of the home.

After the investigators write a report evaluating the residence’s lead safety and whether the home needs to be renovated, Gloria Smith said she works on the case until the child’s lead level falls below 5 micrograms per deciliter. She said she has seen children with lead levels as high as 60 micrograms per deciliter. 

There are two ways to reduce lead concentration in a child, Gloria Smith said: remove the child from the lead source or change their diet to foods that help them excrete the lead.

“It does get pretty frustrating, because number one, we are addressing a problem after it has happened,” Gloria Smith said. “So now we’ve got to work it back, we’ve got to help these parents and these guardians get this lead out of the babies’ bodies.”

As the city’s lead-safe coordinator, Monica Smith is responsible for administering the lead-safety ordinance. The law sorts rental units into one of 10 required-certification phases based on their location and vulnerability to lead exposure. The ordinance is currently in its second phase. 

Landlords are responsible for arranging housing inspections by private contractors, who perform a visual exam of the home, take samples and send them to a lab for testing. If the unit passes the lab test, it is eligible for the Lead Safe Certificate.

“The Ohio Department of Health has certain guidelines that the inspectors have to follow in regards to where they test for lead. Typically, of course, they’re going to look at windows, because oftentimes if windows have lead paint and you open and close those windows, you create that friction, then there’s the dust,” Monica Smith said. “I think what a lot of people don’t realize is: All it takes is literally lead the size of a grain of salt, and that will cause elevated levels in children under 6 years old.”

Monica Smith said currently about 2,800 housing units have obtained lead-safe certificates out of about a possible 40,000 and added that there are grants available to reduce the cost of making a home lead-safe. 

But real estate figures have fought Toledo’s lead safety ordinance for years, contesting its fairness and practicality. State Rep. and property investor Derek Merrin, R-Monclova Township, unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation in 2017 that would have exclusively empowered the state to address lead safety. That same year, Toledo landlord Cheryl Mack and the Toledo Property Investors Network filed a lawsuit alleging that the city lacked the authority to enforce the ordinance and that its focus on 1-4 unit rentals created an “unequal playing field.”

In the wake of several court battles since then, the city passed its current ordinance in 2020, which continues to target 1-4 unit rentals. But landlord Charmarlyn Strong filed another lawsuit in June 2022 that has indefinitely delayed enforcement of the ordinance, according to Monica Smith, who added that a judge will soon hear proposed amendments to the law.

The city council’s 1-4 unit stipulation is one of the ordinance’s most controversial features. Carol Walls, charter member of Toledo PIN, said the group is financing Strong’s lawsuit because it wants the law to apply to all properties.

“Our thing was equal protection, and that we want all children to be protected from lead,” Walls said.

Walls also expressed skepticism about the efficacy of the required lead safety inspections, labeling them as “egregious” and questioning whether houses are a major source of lead poisoning.

Anna Mills, president of the Toledo Real Estate Investors Association, said as a lead abatement contractor, she herself has to prepare homes for the lab tests. She believes inspections aren’t reliable indicators of whether a home is safe because lead from the air and soil contaminates the property.

“As soon as somebody walks across the threshold, opens the door, or opens a window, you no longer pass that test,” Mills said. “To give a certificate to somebody that makes them believe that they’re now living lead-safe and they don’t have to clean — it’s false in its premise.”

Walls and Mills both said the ordinance unfairly targets “mom-and-pop” property investors and that even with the available grants, the certification process is unaffordable. Mills added that landlords are left with no choice but to pass on the costs to tenants.

Ordinance supporters contest the charge that it discriminates against small real estate businesses.

“One narrative that is put out there is: ‘There’s a lot of mom-and-pop landlords out there, this is going to make it so difficult for them.’ And so what you get is this image of this poor family who’s really just struggling to have this rental unit,” Thomas said. “The vast majority of the folks we’re talking about, the rental units are owned by some kind of corporation that really does not fit within that narrative.”

Thomas, who is also part of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition, said he has represented families who faced eviction by landlords as retribution for reporting lead hazards to the health department. The only solution to the lead poisoning issue, according to Thomas, is to implement local building standards. 

Gloria Smith said it’s discouraging that lead poisoning case numbers have not improved much from 20 years ago. Although she’s focused on supporting the ordinance at the local level, she hopes the U.S. will take additional lead safety measures such as banning lead-containing imports. 

Lead poisoning continues to disproportionately impact low-income children and children of color, Gloria Smith added, but she is seeing an increase of cases in white and middle-class children. That trend is changing how residents view the issue, she said.

“When you have a condition that affects poor and brown and Black babies, people tend to turn their heads. But I’m beginning to see a new look of lead poisoning in our community,” she said. “It seems like when you begin to talk in a different language, people start listening with a different ear.”


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