As one of the most longstanding environmental justice organizations in Northeast Ohio, Environmental Health Watch (EHW) educates the public and elected officials about environmental hazards, advocates for policy solutions, and provides direct services to support healthy homes and communities.
Lead poisoning is one of the most pressing environmental health hazards confronting Clevelanders. More than 90% of the city’s housing stock was built before 1978, the year in which residential lead-based paint was banned. Research from Case Western Reserve University found that 25% of Cleveland kindergarteners have been shown through testing to have an elevated level of lead in their blood at least once before age six.
Lead exposure is concentrated in disinvested neighborhoods that have historically been segregated, redlined, and targeted by subprime lenders. These systemic racial injustices have left Black students more likely than their white counterparts to experience lead poisoning. With strong advocacy from the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, led in part by EHW, the city of Cleveland passed a transformational ordinance in 2019 that requires rental units built before 1978 to proactively certify that they are lead safe. No longer will Cleveland wait to act until a child has been irreversibly poisoned by lead hazards in a rental unit.
The Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, a public-private partnership that aims to significantly reduce lead poisoning in Cleveland within the next decade, selected EHW to operate a first-of-its-kind Lead Safe Resource Center. The Resource Center is a hub for lead poisoning prevention information and community engagement initiatives. With an in-house hotline and drop-in headquarters open to the public, the Lead Safe Resource Center makes information accessible to all and engages community organizations in the movement for structural change to eliminate lead poisoning. EHW brings decades of expertise and longstanding acquaintance with Northeast Ohio to this work.
Genuine community partnership is one of the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition’s core principles: those most directly harmed by lead poisoning should have a central role in efforts to mitigate it. Low-income neighborhoods affected by systemic injustices are most likely to suffer the burdens of lead poisoning, and the outreach led by EHW enables the Coalition to involve residents of these neighborhoods in its initiatives. EHW empowers tenants to get involved in creating lead safe spaces. The Lead Safe Resource Center provides community members with information and tools to understand health risks, make their own home environments safer, and advocate for systemic change. EHW has canvassed every neighborhood of Cleveland to raise awareness of lead poisoning and hosted community gatherings to answer tenants’ questions. Although the pandemic posed challenges to the organization’s direct outreach, EHW adapted some of its programming for virtual events and distributed PPE during in-person activities.
EHW also connects with hesitant landlords, helps them navigate the lead safe certification process, and provides them with the resources to do so. The organization is currently in the second year of a five-year campaign to help property owners acquire their Lead Safe Certification. Building on the past year of successful community outreach, Environmental Health Watch will continue to operate the Lead Safe Resource Center and expand the coalition of Clevelanders working towards a future where no child is poisoned by lead.