There now are more than 3,000 Minneapolis school-age children, the majority of whom are children of color, that have tested positive for lead.
And in 2021, the number of new children with lead poisoning rose 15% from the year before, the first increase in a decade, partly because families stayed home more during the pandemic, Mayor Jacob Frey said during his State of the City address earlier this week. In 2021, about 90 Minneapolis children tested positive for lead, according to city officials. And that increase came as fewer children were getting tested amid the pandemic.
The mayor wants to spend $3 million of the city's remaining $43 million federal pandemic relief money to end childhood lead poisoning in Minneapolis by 2035.
"The home should be a healthy place," Frey said. "This is not acceptable."
The main culprit: house paint. About 70% of the city's housing stock was built before 1978, when lead paint was banned for residential use.
"We are taking on aggressive goals to protect the lives of young children," Frey said, promising that Minneapolis will be "the first major city in the country to eliminate childhood lead poisoning from housing."
Many of the children who tested positive for lead live in north and south-central Minneapolis. Their blood lead levels were above 5 micrograms per deciliter, and in a few cases above 20, said Lisa Smestad, the city's lead and healthy homes manager.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines for elevated blood levels from 5 to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter. Studies have shown that some children with lead poisoning have lower IQ levels, as well as learning and behavior problems in school.
"Our motto is we need to stop using children as lead detectors," Smestad said. "Because we know where the housing is. We know the age of housing; we know the neighborhoods that are most at risk."
Because many children who get lead poisoning live in impoverished neighborhoods, funding from the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development would help change that situation, Smestad said.
Remediation efforts include changing how the city licenses rentals in the most afflicted neighborhoods. For example, it could send health inspectors with rental licensing inspectors to remove lead hazards from homes. The city also refers children to early childhood programs and works with a nurse to conduct developmental evaluations.
Meanwhile, the city is looking to work with homeowners to remove and replace lead pipes from their properties. About 49,000 Minneapolis homes may have lead pipes, and the estimated cost to replace them is more than $320 million.
Minneapolis does not own any of the service lines, making funding lead replacement projects tricky, said Annika Bankston, the city's director of Water Treatment and Distribution Services. To prevent lead seepage, city officials have been applying a protective coating on lead pipes to halt corrosion.
In St. Paul, the city owns and is responsible for the cost of replacing the pipe that goes from the water main below the street up to the private property line. Homeowners own the water pipes from their property line to the meter, said Patrick Shea, general manager of St. Paul Regional Water Services.
Removing lead for the nation's water supply systems has become a priority as more information emerges about the risks. Both the federal infrastructure fund and the American Rescue Plan earmarked billions of dollars for removing and replacing lead pipes.
St. Paul has set a goal to remove all public and private pipes with lead by 2033 at no cost to homeowners. Minneapolis officials say they are no longer waiting for property owners to decide when to replace lead water pipes and are banking on the federal infrastructure dollars to help offset homeowners' costs.
Minnesota is expected to receive $43 million a year for the next five years from the infrastructure bill through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), said Chad Kolstad, the Minnesota Department of Health's drinking water fund program coordinator.
There's a massive need in Minneapolis based on the number of homes with lead pipes and the cost of replacing them, Bankston said. With the federal money flowing in, she said, "we can facilitate a way to help the property owners leverage those monies to replace their service lines."
The city's comprehensive plan includes identifying where to dig up the streets to access the service lines and ramping up outreach to property owners "that now is the right time" to replace lead pipes, Bankston said.
The work would cost homeowners roughly $7,000, she said, with federal money used to cut the cost in half. Bankston also wants to create what she calls a "rolling fund" program that assesses costs to property taxes or offers short-term loans.
"Our tap levels of lead are very low. [But] where we're shifting to is the concept that no level of lead is safe. And that's why getting the lead out makes sense," Bankston said.
As part of the plan, the city is working on building an online tool that lets property owners check whether their home has lead service lines. St. Paul has already created such a map.
Minneapolis provides a free lead testing kit to residents who request one, Bankston said. Residents can call 311, the city's information and services number, or look up lead testing on the city's website to get a sample kit sent to them. St. Paul also offers free water testing kits to check for lead. Call 651-266-1635.