The Indiana State Department of Health says the greatest risk for lead exposure for kids in Indiana is lead paint in housing built before 1978, when the metal-laced paint was banned.
But in many parts of the state, more people are living in older homes – which are more likely to contain the potentially toxic paint – than newer homes. Today, nearly half of Indiana counties have 65 percent or more of their housing built before 1980. All but three counties – Hamilton, Johnson and Hendricks – have more than 45 percent of their housing built before 1980.
Dave McCormick, director of the lead and healthy homes division at the state health department, said there has been a serious need for decades to remediate those homes to remove lead contaminants, but there’s never been dedicated funding to do it – until now.
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration announced earlier this month it received federal authorization to use up to $3 million annually over the next five years to establish a new initiative to provide lead abatement services to low-income Hoosiers with children.
McCormick said his division at the state health department is now set to head-up the initiative, which is being funded through the state’s Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP). FSSA received a special waiver to use the funds for the new abatement initiative, making Indiana one of just a handful of states authorized to use CHIP funds to cleanup lead-contaminated houses.
The new initiative is aimed directly at helping low-income children. The money will only be spent abating homes in which a child enrolled in Medicaid is living or spends a large amount of time.
‘A huge win’
“To be able to remediate any home is a huge win,” McCormick said. “The fact that we potentially have $3 million for the next five years is monumental. Although we’re addressing housing, we’re really promoting a healthy lifestyle for this child.”
The state health department has already identified 600 kids who are living in homes that contain identified lead hazards, but the new program will initially focus on remediating homes in East Chicago and South Bend, which are saddled with some of the worst lead contamination in the state.
In 2009, a neighborhood in East Chicago was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list after years of testing revealed the soil contained dangerous amounts of lead and arsenic. The city’s mayor last year forced residents at a housing complex to evacuate because of the contamination.
McCormick said they have identified 130 homes in East Chicago that qualify for the new abatement program.
In South Bend, the Indiana Health Department reported last year there were three census tracts in the city in which at least 20 percent
of the children were tested with elevated levels of lead. An analysis by Notre Dame showed there were even more lead-poisoned kids than the state’s initial report, the South Bend Tribune reported. McCormick said although the new abatement initiative will focus on those two cities, the program will serve low-income families anywhere in the state.
“We’re not limited, but those are our priority areas,” he said.
To identify houses which qualify for the program, the state health department will use a surveillance system to track areas of the state with elevated lead levels in homes. Health officials will then reach out to Medicaid to find homes in which low-income children live. McCormick said the state may also work with county health departments in which they identify lead-contaminated homes.
But the program will do more than just fund home renovations. The money will also be spent to educate doctors and healthcare providers about the need to test children for elevated levels of lead. McCormick said federal law requires any child covered by Medicaid to be tested twice for lead poisoning – once at 12 months and again at 24 months – but Indiana is falling short on meeting that condition. He said less than half of kids on Medicaid are getting the required lead tests.
“I think it’s a lack of awareness that has got us to this problem,” McCormick said. And that problem can lead to serious, life-long health issues for children, who are most at risk to the dangers of lead. Lead poisoning damages the proper growth of the brain and nervous system, and can cause hearing loss, impulsive behaviors and learning disabilities. The damage from lead poisoning is irreversible.
And older houses with lead paint are one of the leading causes for lead poisoning. A 2015 study by the state’s Environmental Public Health division found 30 percent of lead-poising rates were explained by the percentage of older housing.
The new state initiative aims to curb those numbers, but the program faces one major hiccup – lawmakers have yet to extend funding on the CHIP program which is paying for the abatement initiative.
Funding technically expired at the end of September, but most states have had enough funding to last for a few months. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, announced Thursday the House will vote next week on extending CHIP funding.
Jim Gavin, a spokesperson for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, said Indiana’s CHIP program has sufficient funding to continue normal operations for the next several months, and the agency is “hopeful and confident that Congress will reauthorize CHIP funding.”
McCormick said he’s also hopeful, considering the abatement program has the potential to make a big dent in the number of homes in the state that could potentially poison kids for generations.
“This is a need we’ve had for many years, so to have some remediation funds available will really help children create a broad foundation for their future,” he said.