By: Gongwer Ohio
State policymakers should partner with child care programs if they hope to make progress when it comes to minimizing childhood lead poisoning, advocates said Tuesday.
That was one of several policy recommendations outlined in a report released by Groundwork Ohio and commissioned by the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition and Ready, Set, Soar Ohio.
Called "Building the Way to a Healthier Future," the report labels lead exposure a public health crisis that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and that, like the virus, disproportionately impacts minority children.
"Ohio has a real opportunity to learn and emerge as a leader," said Lynanne Gutierrez, assistant director and legal counsel for Groundwork Ohio.
"Childhood lead poisoning in Ohio is a shameful display of the stark impact of racism and other structural inequities on our public systems," she added. "Black children are twice as likely to have elevated levels of lead when compared to their white peers of the same socioeconomic status. The child care system and other early learning programs can be integral primary and secondary prevention partners in this work."
The report advocates regulatory decisions be made through a preventative lens, encouraging lawmakers to enact systems to prevent exposure instead of those triggered only after exposure has occurred.
The primary source of exposure remains lead-based paint, which the Department of Health estimates is present in 3.7 million Ohio households. Soil, water and consumer products can also result in exposure, the groups said.
The report outlines nine policy recommendations, including: launching a data-intensive effort to determine the scope of lead hazards in child care programs, leveraging relationships with child care professionals to facilitate education, and exploring funding options through Medicaid to eliminate risks.
Among other recommendations are: launching a statewide advocacy campaign, pursuing new state and federal funding to support lead removal, and inviting programs to co-create their own solutions to guide the state forward.
Ms. Gutierrez said policymakers must balance the need for action with ensuring child care providers have the financial and educational support they need to enact change. That is especially true, she said, since the pandemic has left the child care infrastructure "on the verge of collapse."
"We have to be really thoughtful about how we move forward and regardless of the choices moving forward child care has to be at the table as a partner," Ms. Gutierrez said.
She said regulations and policies must be accompanied by strong public and stakeholder education. Regardless of next steps, she said actions must be measured to ensure their effectiveness.
The report was unveiled during a panel discussion featuring LeeAnne Cornyn, director of the Governor's Office of Children's Initiatives, and other leaders in the lead arena.
Ms. Cornyn, who also leads the governor's lead advisory council, said the DeWine Administration has continued to make the issue a priority such as through early intervention services and funding through the State Child Health Insurance Program.
"There's so much work going on. There's so much to be proud of, so many early wins," she said. "Certainly, there is more work to do, but the governor has made it clear this is a strategic priority."
Wyonette Cheairs, manager of the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, called the report "groundbreaking" in its support of efforts to establish lead-safe spaces.
"Lead poisoning is an equity issue," Ms. Cheairs said. "Now more than ever during this pandemic we are reminded of the importance of a safe place shelter."
Representatives from the Ohio Lead Free Kids Coalition, Molina Healthcare and PRE4CLE also took part in the panel.