Lead paint exposure for Montco kids is the 6th highest PA

The controversy surrounding widespread lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan made national headlines in 2014. Nearly 100,000 residents were exposed to lead in their drinking water, prompting a state of emergency.

But 500 miles to the east, in Pennsylvania, many children in 18 Pennsylvania communities experience levels of lead exposure worse than the average in Flint, according to

Montgomery County was not spared. Each year, more than 250 children across the county are diagnosed with lead poisoning. According to the Lead-Free Promise Project, the number would be higher if more children were tested. Montgomery County ranks sixth among all counties in Pennsylvania.

Call it the silent child health crisis.

The hardest-hit areas are Pottstown, Lansdale and Abington, said Tori McQueen, Montgomery County Environmental Protection Coordinator in Norristown. But lead remains lurk in most residences in the county.

Torey McQueen (photo by Emma Restrep)

“Countywide, more than 163,000 homes are contaminated, which is approximately 63 percent (of all homes),” she said.

“The devastating effects of lead on children is no secret,” said Frederick Henretig, a medical toxicologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Poison Control Center and professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The threat is especially relevant in houses built before 1978.

“Unlike Flint, Montco has a problem with contaminated paint,” Henretig said. “Lead paint was generally used on wood surfaces, window frames, window sills, doors, stair moldings, stair railings, and the like.”

Frederick Henretig
Frederick Henretig

He explained that the greatest danger is posed by children “from 1 to 3 years old, when they constantly put their hands in their mouths. Small paint particles or paint dust can get on their hands.”

And unfortunately, lead has a sweet taste, which increases the risk of ingestion.

Henretig said “the majority of children have no symptoms,” but for those who do, they often start with fatigue. Then the appetite may disappear; constipation can occur, and in “very rare cases, they may pass out, have a seizure, or become anemic.”

The potential long-term effects are perhaps even more worrisome. According to the Centers for Disease Control, long-term exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, leading to delays in development, learning, behavioral and speech problems, and attention deficit disorder.

There is a ray of hope within this health crisis.

That same year, when the county found that 63 percent of homes could be contaminated with lead, the federal government received a grant to address the problem. The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services has received $1.8 million from the federal government to fight childhood lead poisoning in Lansdale and Pottstown. Norristown was incorporated later.

“HUD has awarded more than $314 million to 77 state and local government agencies across the country,” McQueen said. “Montgomery County was one of six grant recipients in Pennsylvania.”

In Montgomery County, only Norristown requires lead paint testing.  (Image from screenshot)
In Montgomery County, only Norristown requires lead paint testing. (Image from screenshot)

McQueen told a Montgomery County Board of Health meeting last September that the program would run for 42 months and end in August 2023.

As of April 2022, McQueen said, the program had completed lead remediation in 10 units, “four owned or operated by Black and Brown families and four vacant.” There was no information about the race of the residents of the other two facilities.

While lead poisoning is no secret, McQueen said finding funding for solutions has been difficult. The most vulnerable, unsurprisingly, are people of color, who often live in older housing stock where lead paint was commonly used.

In Montgomery County, non-Hispanic black children are nearly four times more likely than non-Hispanic white children and more than eight times more likely to have elevated blood lead levels in Montgomery County, according to the 2020 Pennsylvania Lead Surveillance Report.

Judith Memmerg (photo by Emma Restrep)
Judith Memmerg (photo by Emma Restrep)

Montgomery County’s Lead and Healthy Homes program partners with two local organizations, Genesis Housing Corp., to deliver the program. and ACLAMO, McQueen said.

Judith Memmerg, executive director of Genesis Housing Corporation, said her agency’s job is to hire contractors to do rehabilitation work and pay for alternative housing for residents while the work is done, such as a hotel or motel. Families are sometimes forced to leave their homes for up to two weeks while major lead remediation work is carried out.

Nelly Jimenez-Arevala
Nelly Jimenez-Arevala

Nellie Jimenez-Arevala, ACLAMO’s executive director and CEO, said the nonprofit regularly educates the Latino community in Montgomery County about lead poisoning, mostly through workshops offered by ACLAMO. ACLAMO received a $30,000 grant to expand its outreach and bring more families together to rebuild their homes.

Jimenez-Arevala says the Latino community is not very aware of the silent dangers of lead poisoning. Most don’t hear about the special risks for children “unless your pediatrician tells you.”

Colleen McCauley, director of health policy at Children First, explained that the current practice of pinpointing lead hazards is deprioritizing. “We mainly test children to determine the presence of lead in their homes. So we’re effectively using children as a canary in the coal mine to test for the toxin, which is an incredibly harmful strategy.”

Colin McCauley (photo by Emma Restrep)
Colin McCauley (photo by Emma Restrep)

In general, when it comes to lead exposure in vulnerable communities, lack of access to information and resources for remediation can have deadly consequences.

McCauley explained that Norristown has taken several steps this year to warn and protect its residents:

“Norristown is the only municipality in Mantco that has an ordinance that requires inspections of older properties,” she said. “This ordinance requires landlords of pre-1978 properties to test them for lead paint hazards every three years and report the results to the city in order to obtain a rental license. And anyone selling a pre-1978 property must undergo a property inspection within six months before selling their home.’

For Latin Americans, the problem of lead poisoning can become even more complex.

Latinos often do not feel comfortable talking to outsiders about the issues they face in their communities. After many attempts, a sizable group of Norristown Latinos agreed to share their experiences, but not for attribution. While some said they were unaware of the risk of lead poisoning, others said their children had been diagnosed with it. They said they were having difficulty solving the basic problems of their apartments.

Often, they say, their landlord is also their manager or the owner of the construction company they work for, so they don’t want to push the landlord to spend money on rehabilitation.

They say they are worried about their children’s health, but fear that if they go to county health authorities to get them tested, they risk having the children taken away for neglect. Some said they spent money or used their own labor to try to eliminate lead exposure in their units.

“We are in the crossfire,” said one Latino, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

None of these residents were aware of rehabilitation grants available in the county, highlighting the need for federal funds to reach the public.

And even if they were, the program’s goal of 50 units by the end of next year — a goal the county will need to accelerate to reach — is just the first step in solving a problem that could affect thousands upon thousands of properties.

Emma Restrepa is a reporter for Children First’s DisParities media project.

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