Nearly 500 children under the age of 6 recently tested positive for lead poisoning in Minnesota, an ongoing health issue for which the federal government earmarks significant funding every year.

This fall, Hennepin County received a record $6.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to prevent lead poisoning, part of a $125 million grant package distributed among 26 states. Only the cities of Chicago and Houston received more funding than Hennepin County, which has a large stock of homes and apartments that used lead paint.

The county inspects and removes lead paint from windows, doors and stairs in at least 125 homes and apartments every year, and the federal funds will allow the county to cover up to $12,000 in paint removal for each property. Replacing a window with lead paint can cost up to $11,000, said Mike Jensen, the county's lead abatement program manager.

Hennepin County's last federal grant to battle lead poisoning was $5.6 million.

"The number of children with lead poisoning has gone down in the last decade," Jensen said. "But we can't stick a flag in the ground and declare the problem will be over anytime soon."

Lead poisoning can only be detected by a blood test. It can result in brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems and hearing and speech complications. The impact can be permanent or even deadly.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a slowdown in lead abatement because workers couldn't go inside residences for inspections, and there was a shortage of supplies to make repairs.

Most homes used lead paint before 1978, when the federal government banned the product. Many of the properties are in low-income neighborhoods where owners and renters may not be know about the effects of lead poisoning or that grant money may be available for repairs.

The number of Minnesota children under 6 who tested positive for elevated lead levels has dropped from 900 in 2011. About 25% of the nearly 500 cases in 2020 occurred in Hennepin County; Ramsey and St. Louis counties also had a significant number of poisoning cases.

It's a misconception that most children are poisoned by eating lead chips, Jensen said. Most actually get sick when windows and doors are opened and closed, creating lead dust that can be breathed in or ingested. The unborn babies of pregnant woman can also be exposed to lead poisoning.

Since 2004, Hennepin County has removed lead paint from 5,200 houses and apartment units. The federal grants used for the program are awarded every four years, and require up to a 25% matching grant from the county.

The county has an extensive education and outreach program about lead abatement, said Jensen. Officials use census tracts to target families most likely at risk, looking at factors such as housing age, income level and the history of elevated blood levels in the area.

"This is then mapped out to help with partners who go out in the community," Jensen said. "We can get there before it happens and make sure kids aren't exposed."

While leaded paint is the biggest concern, lead can also be found in imported spices such as turmeric and chili powder, cosmetics, imported candy, traditional cookware, pottery and imported aluminum cookware. Traditional Chinese, Hispanic and Indian medicines can be sources of lead. Hennepin County has a mobile X-ray machine to test those products, along with plastics and soil.

The county has 11 people on its lead inspection team and contracts with other organizations for outreach. One such group is Sustainable Resources Center, a nonprofit that also works with the city of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Health to create healthy and energy-efficient homes.

The group visits residents, answering questions about lead abatement and discussing how to enroll in the grant program. It uses a van, called Leadie Eddie, that offers free lead testing in the community. More than 20,000 children have been tested since the group started in 1976.

"Families get the results within three minutes," said Rachelle Menanteau Peleska, the group's director of education and outreach. "The rate of lead poisoning will now increase post-COVID. So it's great timing to have the county grants available."

Most property owners and tenants are receptive to lead abatement after they learn how serious the problem is, Peleska said. But she said she becomes frustrated by landlords who don't want to cooperate with the grant program. If a child tests positive for lead, they are required to make repairs.

"They have to shoulder very little of the cost," Peleska said. "It's a no-brainer to make the houses safe. Housing is a right. This makes kids safe and could save their lives."