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Dave Heller

Dave Heller

Here’s some good news: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just awarded $139 million in grant money to 48 state and local government agencies to protect children and families from lead-based paint and other home health hazards.

Now the bad news: Scott County got nothing. Zip. Nada.

Others did: Sioux City secured $4.1 million. Dubuque landed more than $3.5 million. Council Bluffs got $2.3 million. Even Marshalltown, with a population about a quarter the size of Davenport’s, took home about $3.5 million. But Scott County got shut out.

I wish I could say that’s because we don’t need it, that lead poisoning is not a problem here. But that’s not true.

Lead paint is toxic to everyone, especially children, who absorb it more easily than adults. It can stunt growth and cause permanent cognitive and behavioral problems in young, developing brains. The most common way kids get lead poisoning is from eating or inhaling lead-based paint. Kids will peel paint chips off walls or window sills, put them in their mouths (lead can taste sweet) and suck on them as if they were candy.

And in Scott County we have plenty of it.

In 1978, the federal government did ban the manufacture of lead-based paint, which meant for anyone buying a new home, there was no problem. Iowa, however, ranks third in the nation in the percentage of houses built before the 1940s. More than 22% of Iowa homes were built before 1950. And Scott County? More than 30%. One Davenport neighborhood has more than 77% of its housing stock built before 1950.

Is there a correlation between old houses and lead poisoning? Yes. More than half (57%) of kids with lead poisoning in Scott County live in just 14% of the houses. In other words, the same houses keep poisoning more and more children, because those kids come from transient, low-income families. That 57% amounts to 840 children, who are likely to have behavior and learning problems, lower IQs and stunted growth, hearing loss, damaged nerves or kidney failure. And, depending how much lead those children ingested, seizures, comas and even (in rare cases) death.

Fortunately, some in our community have already stepped up. The City of Moline secured $2.4 million from HUD to remediate lead poisoning. In Iowa, Scott County Supervisor Tony Knobbe is president of a new organization called Live Lead Free QC, which is committed to ridding our region of lead paint. The Scott County Board of Supervisors has agreed to fund its efforts for this year and next. The cities of Moline, Rock Island and Davenport have all joined. Both Genesis Health System and Unity Point Health Trinity are also on board.

"But the biggest problem," says Vanessa Lee, vice president of Live Lead Free QC, "has been getting landlords to do the right thing and remediate their rental properties. These families are poor and very transient, they bounce from home to home, and every time a new family moves into a building with lead paint, you’re going to have the same problem of new kids getting poisoned."

To address this problem, Live Lead Free QC is asking Davenport officials to consider legislation requiring landlords, after a three-year phase-in period, to pass a lead paint inspection. Remediated properties would have to pass inspection every five years to make sure the new paint doesn’t wear off. Abated properties would not have to undergo a repeat inspection. To facilitate compliance, they mapped out neighborhoods with the highest need of remediation or abatement. They are already working with contractors and property owners to remediate those. Which is a good start.

But we need to do more, and soon. This fall, Davenport voters will elect a new mayor, and each of the aldermen are also up for election. So this year, let’s ask the candidates something more than the usual. Let’s ask the candidates, "What are you going to do to about lead poisoning in our city?"

Let’s get them to commit to supporting legislation requiring landlords to remediate older properties and to using the full resources of the city to vigorously pursue HUD grants.

Likewise, next year when we elect a new member of Congress in the Iowa Quad-Cities, let’s ask the candidates to commit themselves to doing what Rep. Cheri Bustos has accomplished – bringing home federal dollars to fight lead poisoning in our community. Maybe then, if the feds return another $13.5 million in grant money to Iowa, Scott County will get its fair share. Instead of wondering why Marshalltown’s kids appear to be valued more than our own.

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Dave Heller owns the Quad-Cities River Bandits. He also is a member of the Genesis Health System board of directors. Voices of the Quad-Cities, a weekly column featuring local writers, appears on Tuesdays.

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