It's an unusual display: clay bean pots, figurines of the Cookie Monster and a lion, a red and green rattle. Minneapolis Health Department workers, who retrieved the items from homes because they contain lead, use them as part of the city's initiative to lower lead levels in kids.

The department's Healthy Homes team inspects homes deemed at risk of lead exposure and does extensive outreach in five neighborhoods with the city's highest lead levels: Central, Powderhorn Park, Phillips, Jordan and Hawthorne.

Children who test positive are more likely to belong to families of color and live in lower-income neighborhoods. According to the city, nearly 75% of kids with elevated lead levels in Minneapolis are children of color.

"You can get involved and change the trajectory of a child's life," said Fardowza Omar, who leads a team of 14 multilingual inspectors who understand the concerns of the communities at risk.

People tend to trust the information they receive from a member of their own community, said Dr. Laura Breeher, an occupational and environmental medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic.

"Knowledgeable community health workers can quickly connect people to community resources," she said. That's what Healthy Homes inspector Adylene Ocotoxtle was doing at a recent Cinco de Mayo event on Lake Street.

Ocotoxtle, who grew up in the neighborhood and knows many residents are nervous to get lead testing because of deportation fears, explained what lead poisoning is and how to apply for grants in Spanish. Of the 15 kids the workers tested, a few came back with levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter — the level that triggers high levels of concern in Minnesota.

"In children, one of the primary concerns is cognitive effects," Breeher said. "We want to make sure children aren't having long-term negative cognitive effects of memory and learning."

Research has shown that lead is toxic to humans and can cause everything from gastrointestinal issues to memory problems. After legislation banned leaded paint in the late 1970s and leaded gas in the 1990s, lead levels started dropping.

Minneapolis recorded 505 cases of lead-poisoned children in 2008; by 2020, that number had dipped to 66 before climbing to 112 in 2022, when the city suspended in-person outreach during the pandemic.

Prevention efforts focus on children because kids tend to touch more contaminated items such as floors, walls and windowsills — and then put their fingers in their mouths. Lead is stored in the bones, and the bones of growing children pull in more unwanted toxins.

Acute toxicity often results in symptoms such as headaches, upset stomachs, muscle aches and cognitive impairment, Breeher said. Chronic lead toxicity, on the other hand, usually produces few noticeable symptoms, or symptoms so mild most people wouldn't think of lead as a cause. But it can still affect many of the same body systems for years.

When Omar first started inspecting homes, the city had limited resources and got involved only when a test showed a level of 20 micrograms per deciliter. As research has progressed and intervention has been shown to work, the level that merits concern has dropped to 5 micrograms per deciliter.

"There can be small impacts on cognitive function with even low levels of chronic lead toxicity," Breeher said.

Most Minneapolis residents face potential lead exposure simply because they live in older homes built when lead paint was used and drinking water flowed through lead pipes. People of color and immigrant communities tend to live in poorer neighborhoods that are at higher risk of lead exposure because they are closer to freeways and the houses are more likely to contain old paint.

The Healthy Homes team uses an X-ray fluorescence device to test everything from spices to medicines. The team has found high levels of lead in beans cooked in a traditional clay pot used by Latino families. Outreach workers look for coal used as makeup in Somali and Southeast Asian homes, spices in Indian homes, and medicines, candy, and toys that come from other countries that don't have stringent lead regulations.

The Minneapolis Health Department recommends children who live in homes built before 1978 to get tested annually until age 6. Tests above 5 micrograms per deciliter get sent to the Minnesota Department of Health, and the state shares that information with the city.

That's when a family gets a call from the Healthy Homes team. There's often some initial apprehension, Omar said, until inspectors assure the family that their immigration status won't be released to authorities. They look at everything painted in a home, inside and out, every wall and window sill, and all belongings.

"We test the garage, fences, soil, the basement, all the rooms on the first floor and second floor," Omar said. "If it has paint, we have access and will test it."

Within two hours, the team can report their findings to the family and offer recommendations. That might mean temporary solutions as simple as blocking window sills with furniture, Omar said. Longer-term fixes may involve applying for grants to remediate paint or replace windows and doors.

Once the exposure is eliminated, lead levels usually drop quickly, and many children who tested high initially don't experience long-term effects, Breeher said.