Many believe lead poisoning in young children is no longer a significant public health concern. But lead paint hazard removal continues to be a priority in Hennepin County, where the largest stock of homes with lead paint exist in the state.

The county is getting $3.4 million in grants, and the city of Minneapolis another $2.9 million, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to make more homes lead-free.

“We are all working for the day when we don’t use children as lead detectors,” said Lisa Smestad, manager of lead hazard control and healthy homes for Minneapolis.

The numbers of sick children are down in Hennepin County. Since 2010, they dropped from 250 to 168, a decline of 33 percent. Statewide, the number of children testing positive for lead decreased from 672 in 2010 to 536 in 2015, a decline of 20 percent.

But hundreds of the most vulnerable kids in the state continue to suffer from unsafe lead levels in their system, despite decades of dollars thrown at prevention, outreach, testing and cleanup efforts.

“Lead poisoning is still a very serious and vital public health issue,” said Rachelle Menanteau Peleska, director of education and outreach for Sustainable Resources Center in Minneapolis. “It’s such a preventable issue.”

Both Hennepin County and Minneapolis are starting to use a prevention and outreach model in the hope of protecting children before they are poisoned, said Mike Jensen, who supervises the county’s lead reduction program.

County staffers do mailings to mothers with newborns in targeted censustracts, work with nonprofit organizations on door-to-door outreach, and attend health and housing fairs and other community events. If a family is eligible, the organizations work to get them signed up for the grant program.

The county tests homes for lead and tries to reduce it before children get exposed, Jensen said. Since 2003, the county has received $33 million in federal grants that resulted in 4,596 new lead-safe housing units.

Minneapolis does similar work, but focuses more on enforcement at properties found to have a child with an elevated lead level. In the last 20 years, the city has seen a 70 percent drop in children with lead poisoning, said Smestad.

Devastating effects

Finding children at risk is often a challenge. If a family receives federal medical assistance, the children are required to be tested at ages 1 and 2. For the rest of children under 6, state officials recommend a blood test, especially if the family lives in a potentially high-risk home.

The state receives more than 100,000 blood tests each year and enters them in a database; positive results are sent to local public health departments. The state also uses the data to analyze and identify high-risk neighborhoods.

A lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter is considered unsafe. In the late 1970s, the average blood lead level in the United States was 15 micrograms. In 2015, 77 children in Minnesota were positive for levels above that.

Those numbers represent tiny amounts of lead, but the effect on a child can be devastating. The result may be brain and nervous system damage, learning disabilities and reduction in IQs, said Menanteau Peleska.

Houses built before the early 1970s are most likely to contain lead paint on windows, doors, exteriors and porch windows. Lead paint often was used because it was the most durable.

Dust from opening and closing windows with lead paint settles, and children get it in their system when they play or eat nearby. As housing stock deteriorated and neighborhoods transformed, low-income occupants moved in to the houses, exposing themselves to risk. Even renovated, well-kept homes could have the same toxic problems.

Hennepin County also has seen imported products made with lead that are contributing to the problem, said Stephanie Yendell, head of the state’s lead surveillance program.

Tasha Julius, who leads the Sustainable Resources Center’s lead reduction program, said families who qualify for the grant program have to put in some sweat equity before crews come to finish the job.

Last year, 800 windows were replaced in Hennepin County. Other cleanup work included painting and vacuuming paint chips and dust.

Because health care plans no longer offer $25 gift cards for new mothers to have their child tested for lead poisoning, she said, organizations such as hers must find new ways to locate babies who need testing.

Learning about lead

Menanteau Peleska and Julius spent Monday afternoon working with Braulia Rendon, whose 1-year-old son, Jesus Balbuena, was tested at a clinic and had a lead level of 8 micrograms.

Rendon bought her century-old home at 2107 Penn Av. N. in Minneapolis in 2013. Her sweat equity included painting the outside of the house and garage; the grant program will pay for new windows on her enclosed porch.

Rendon, whose comments were translated by Menanteau Peleska, said she knew very little about lead poisoning. A nurse taught her how to lower the absorption of lead by eating foods with iron, calcium and vitamin C.

Although she can understand some English, she had trouble reading brochures and ads that promoted the grant program.

She said she was very grateful she qualified for it.

“And I’ve already talked to many of my friends and family about it,” she said.