KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The new charges to come from the Flint Water Crisis are shining a light on the lead dangers still present in West Michigan communities.
A 2016 data report on childhood lead testing revealed that children under the age of 6 living in Kalamazoo County had elevated blood level rates, twice the level of Flint.
The startling revelation has led to change, but some lawmakers say there is more work to be done.
Newly-elected State Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, said elected officials need to be held accountable when it comes to widespread lead poisoning, especially in children.
Rogers spent several years looking into Kalamazoo’s lead problem during her time as a county commissioner.
“I did a deep dive into the ‘why,’” Rogers said. “Kalamazoo County doesn’t have a water problem — we have a housing stock issue. The older, pre-1970s housing stock has lead-based paint. A lot of times, children will kind of gnaw on or eat the paint. It’s very sweet.”
The report identified zip codes 49001 and 49007 as having the highest lead level rates in Kalamazoo County, with the lead exposure primarily coming from lead-based paints.
A mom of five kids living in a 49007 neighborhood, Caley Riemens told News 8 she has had two kids test for elevated blood-lead levels in the past two years.
“It was like a kick in the stomach,” Riemens said about learning her youngest son was also affected by the toxin.
She said her 3-year-old son Colton is already showing possible side effects of lead poisoning.
“He has a speech delay, and he has a lot of other issues that may or may not be from the lead poison,” Riemens said. “The unknown is what’s scary because you don’t know how this is going to affect your kids later on in life.”
As a county commissioner, Rogers worked to tackle the problem, but her efforts were hindered by limited funding and resources at the municipal level.
“Over the years, the state has appropriated less and less to counties for this kind of preventative work,” Rogers said.
As one of the newest lawmakers in Lansing, Rogers has said coming up with solutions to the lead epidemic is one of her legislative priorities.
“More funding to help families in need and to make sure that we can do as much as we can on the prevention because this is 100% a preventable-problem,” Rogers said.
In the meantime, Riemens said there’s no escaping the toxin.
“It doesn’t matter how much you clean, how much you dust, how much you vacuum, it’s still lurking,” she said.
Effectively removing lead from homes can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Rogers said.
“I can’t just up and move,” Riemens said. “I don’t have the funds for that… and I don’t have the funds to fix the problem.”
In 2019, Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services Inc introduced a three-year plan to combat lead poisoning, including using money from a $2 million grant to fix houses where children under the age of six have elevated blood levels.
Riemens said she hit a roadblock in trying to access funds from the grant due to the specifics of her housing situation.
News 8 reached out to the Kalamazoo County Health Department and its partnering agencies like Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. for an update on the grant program and prevention efforts overall but didn’t hear back.