NAACP lead testing

The Marion County Public Health Department tests IPS students for lead poisoning through a partnership with the local NAACP chapter. (Photo provided)

Lead poisoning is most likely to affect African American children, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. It is for this reason the local chapter of the NAACP is working to test children in Indianapolis for lead poisoning. 

Since 2017, the chapter has been raising awareness of lead in schools, homes and the local environment, a cause executive committee chairman Garry Holland said was championed after mentoring in schools. 

“We were mentoring at a school, and there was a kindergartner having an issue in the hallway while the teacher was trying to bring 30 other kids in the classroom,” Holland said. “We went out to help the teacher, and the child was sliding down the wall, and we noticed she had something yellow in her mouth.”

The yellow item was a paint chip. Paint chips, which Holland said taste sweet, pose a significant risk to young children if the chips contain traces of lead. According to the Mayo Clinic, contaminated paint chips were the most common way for children to get lead poisoning. 

Beyond paint, lead in water can lead to many detrimental effects in the short and long term. A 2016 study conducted by the Marion County Public Health Department found 54% of 295 schools tested positive for lead in their water supplies. By the time the report became public earlier this year, every school had fixed or eliminated the contaminated water supply. 

But because this was the first comprehensive test for lead in schools’ water supplies, it’s difficult to tell how many children — and now adults — were contaminated, and how it may be affecting them now. 

According to Karla Johnson, who conducted the lead-in-water study for the health department, said the short-term effects of lead exposure include difficulty learning and comprehending information. Lead can also cause difficulties with impulse control.

Along with the Marion County Public Health Department, the local chapter of the NAACP is conducting lead testing for kindergartners and first graders in Indianapolis Public Schools and the metropolitan school districts of Washington and Pike townships, among others. The groups are also helping pair children who test positive for lead with neural psychologists. 

“Once lead is in the blood, it mimics calcium,” Holland said. “In an undeveloped brain … it can lead to damage, and you can have emotional outbursts, oratory or comprehension problems. Neural exams can pinpoint what area of the brain was injured.” 

Holland believes disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) could really be symptoms of lead poisoning.

Long-term exposure to lead can cause kidney disease, high blood pressure and mood disorders.

Studies show it can also cause violent behavior. 

For decades, experts have hypothesized lead exposure can lead to violent outbursts because it can cause mood disorders and a lack of impulse control. Holland agrees, and thinks testing could curb the rate of violent crime in Indianapolis.

“Science is right now looking at zip codes and looking at homicide rates in different zip codes, tying lead poisoning into some of these violent acts,” Holland said. “After a while, lead seeps into bones and some of the symptoms become irreversible. If people have trouble communicating, a situation could lead straight to someone grabbing a gun. Some of these people can’t help it because they’ve been poisoned.” 

And while the health department and the NAACP continue to educate the public about lead through testing services and public forums, Holland hopes legislation will pass to make it easier to test children in schools throughout the state. 

“House Bill 1265 just passed, which was initially the testing of lead in school buildings throughout Gary and Hammond,” Holland said. While Holland thinks testing buildings is a good first step, he believes children should be tested, as well. 

HB1265 was amended for statewide implementation, and it is expected to go back to the House for passage of the amendments before going to the governor’s office. A spokesperson for Gov. Holcomb said he will review the bill when it gets to his desk.

Holland looked to Senate Bill 286, sponsored by state Sen. Jean Breaux, as an example of placing children first. While the bill never made it to the Senate floor, Breaux said her bill would have “require[d] testing in children for lead levels and prevent[ed] landlords from renting to families with young children if the property has a lead hazard.”

Now in its third year of advocacy for lead testing, Holland said the effort is just getting started.

“This is the beginning of the process for the NAACP’s advocacy as it relates to the healthiness of children,” he said. “African American children are the most vulnerable. … We’re looking at the disproportionality when it comes to the mental health of our community and how these services and therapy can heal us so we … can move forward in a movement that will help us come out of the things we are in.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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