Supervisor David Campos talks about MEDA's new initiative to end childhood lead poisoning. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

MEDA Launches New Program to End Childhood Lead Poisoning

En Español.

Have you had your home inspected for lead recently? If you’re anything like most San Franciscans, the answer is probably no.

But consider this: 94 percent of the city’s houses were built before 1978, when the federal government banned lead-based paint. This puts urban dwellers — especially kids — at high risk for contracting lead poisoning.

To reduce lead poisoning while creating jobs for community members, the Mission Economic Development Agency has launched a program called Lead Free, LLC. The initiative will educate families about the dangers of lead poisoning and provide lead assessments, cleaning services and lead removal. It fosters economic development by offering training, certification and employment opportunities for low-income people to work in lead abatement.

The issue of childhood lead poisoning is a national one — approximately 500,000 U.S. children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old have blood lead levels above the safety threshold as established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That risk is heightened in San Francisco, where the overwhelming majority of structures were built before the 1978 ban.

Lead poisoning cases are concentrated in low-income and minority communities, research has shown. Symptoms can include anemia and organ damage. Children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of breathing or swallowing lead dust due to their rapidly developing nervous systems and brains, according to the National Institutes of Health. Testing and treatment can detect and remove lead from the body. Best of all is prevention through careful lead removal from the home.

That’s where Lead Free comes in. It offers testing for lead levels at home, certified lead dust cleaning, certified post-construction and post-remodeling cleanup to remove residual lead, education services and certified training.

This week, city staff members, contractors and community members gathered inside a buzzing room at Plaza Adelante to celebrate the launch of Lead Free. On hand to back the initiative were Supervisor David Campos, Ginny Fontenot, Lead Free’s social enterprise program manager, and Malea Chavez, the director of Plaza Adelante special projects.

“Lead Free is an innovative idea to try to solve a problem that affects a lot of people, not only in the country but specifically in San Francisco,” said Chavez. “As a parent, I can speak to the fact that this is a real concern and a near and dear issue to my heart … education is key.”

The Mission neighborhood is rich with iconic old buildings, but many of these crumbling beauties contain lead paint from decades ago — and due to general lack of education and community outreach, most families have no idea they’re residing in contaminated spaces. Through the Lead Free initiative, MEDA hopes to work with neighborhood schools and families to educate residents about how to protect themselves from lead exposure.

“We’re very committed to getting out in the community and talking about the dangers of lead poisoning,” said Fontenot.

The program’s most innovative aspect, Fontenot says, is its economic empowerment model: providing lead certified training, certification and employment for low-income community members.

“This has really worked out nicely, because one of my trainees is a single mom,” said Fontenot. “This will be her first full-time job with benefits. She’s made something of herself … I see it as giving individuals a chance at having a job that can sustain their family, instead of struggling.”