Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ohio has a lead problem. One city is hoping to curb it

A man in a bright yellow safety vest inspects the exterior of a house in Cleveland.
Taylor Wizner
A city building inspector Branko Medancic surveys a home in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood. Toledo will require one-to-four unit rentals built before 1978 to undergo inspections for lead contamination. Cleveland has a similar program.

Ohio has a lead problem.

More than 1,500 children under the age of six had elevated levels of lead in their blood last year, according to preliminary data from the Ohio Health Department. The department estimates there are around 19,000 children with lead poisoning in the state.

The problem is acute in Toledo, with more than 150 cases identified in 2021 alone.

Health advocates hope local legislation can address the issue. A new ordinance requires one- to four-unit residential rentals and childcare homes built before 1978 to be inspected and certified as lead-safe from the Lucas County Department of Health.

The deadline for the first phase of the certification process is at the end of March.

“The problem is getting worse,” said Marilynne Wood, a researcher with the University of Toledo and member of the Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition. “If we can get this [ordinance] enforced, it’s a great thing because now we can do something about prevention.”

How does it work?

Each rental property must pass a visual and dust wipe inspection to determine whether the housing is safe for children. If the levels are determined safe by the Lucas County Health Department, then landlords will receive a certificate valid for five years.

The ordinance will take effect in five phases, with neighborhoods identified at particular risk of lead poisoning taking precedence.

A map of Toledo shows which areas are required to have lead-safe certifications and when. Many downtown areas are in red, indicating high priority. Those areas will need to complete their inspections by the end of March. The further out in the suburbs you get, the more the neighborhoods are marked with blue, meaning they will have another three years to get certified.
City of Toledo
A map of Toledo shows which areas are required to have lead-safe certifications and when. High priority areas are in red, and must complete their inspections by the end of March.

Wood said the vast majority of Toledo’s housing was built before 1978 – meaning many of them inherited the toxic legacy of lead paint. But the impact, she said, falls disproportionately upon Black residents and low-income neighborhoods.

In these communities, there’s often a lack of resources to identify the problem.

“This group is kind of at the mercy of the landlord,” Wood said. “They’re afraid to be evicted.”

The impact of lead-poisoning

No level of lead in children’s blood is considered safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The dangers range from brain damage to slow growth and development. Wood said the effects of lead-poisoning are long-lasting, especially for children’s behavior and academic performance in schools.

In her studies, she found that areas with high concentrations of lead correlate to schools with high rates of expulsions and dropouts.

“When they should be reading to learn, they don't know how to read. So, then they're held back,” Wood said. “It’s just a vicious cycle.”

While it’s important to continue testing in schools, Wood said there needs to be a shift from reacting to the issue to actively preventing it.

The bigger picture 

Four years ago, Ohio’s lead poisoning rates were found to be among the worst in the nation.

Ohio’s rates of children with elevated lead levels in their blood was more than two times the national average, at 5.2%, according to the2019 study by JAMA Pediatrics.

Wood said she believes not much has improved. She wants the state to do more – especially since half of the state’s housing units were built before 1965.

"We're just not getting a foothold to really do something dramatic about the problem."
Marilynne Wood, lead researcher and professor emeritus at the University of Toledo

“We're just not getting a foothold to really do something dramatic about the problem,” Wood said.

Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo had the highest number of confirmed cases of lead poisoning in the state in 2021, the most recent year for complete data.

In 2019, Cleveland passed an ordinance similar to Toledo’s measure, requiring landlords with older housing stock to have their residences inspected every two years.

Wood hopes more communities will look to local legislation like theirs in order to prevent the issue.

“This is a population that doesn't always have a voice. So, we need to be their advocate, we need to empower them to do something about it.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.