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South Bend, Ind., Works to Cut Lead Contamination in Homes

A program at the Center for Civic Innovation at Notre Dame is collecting data on contamination from lead paint in homes, and has created at-home testing kits it will then automate to improve health outcomes.

MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data, and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we explore South Bend, Ind.’s Innovation for Safe and Affordable Housing, a program under the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) at the University of Notre Dame that is investigating low-cost solutions to minimize exposure to lead in older homes. 

MetroLab’s Ben Levine and Stefania Di Mauro-Nava spoke with Jay Brockman, director; Heidi Beidinger, assistant director of community health and policy; and Gary Gilot, assistant director of community engagement, all at the CCI, and Genevieve Miller, deputy chief of staff at the city of South Bend to learn more. 

Ben Levine: What is the Innovation for Safe and Affordable Housing in South Bend? Who is involved in this effort? 

Jay Brockman: The issues surrounding lead paint in housing are complex. As with many cities, South Bend has many homes that were built before lead paint was banned in 1978. Lead poisoning poses a particular risk to children under age seven and pregnant women. Historically, homes would only be tested for lead after a blood test in a child came up positive, effectively using the health of the child as a trigger for environmental testing of the home. Further, if home testing by the health department detects elevated levels of lead, this in turn triggers an expensive lead abatement program as stipulated by the EPA that may cost tens of thousands of dollars. This can have devastating economic effects for homeowners in low-income neighborhoods with houses valued under $50,000. It also puts renters in a vulnerable position. 

This past summer, a team of interns, working with the Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem (BCe2), a program under the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) at the University of Notre Dame, investigated low-cost solutions to minimizing exposure to lead in these older homes. The project was advised by Gary Gilot, assistant director of the CCI and former director of public works for the city of South Bend. This particular project fits within the broader efforts of the Lead Innovation Team (LIT), an interdisciplinary group of researchers at Notre Dame focused on multiple aspects of the lead problem.  

Left: University of Notre Dame Center for Civic Innovation intern testing soil for lead in the Southeast Neighborhood of South Bend. Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame.

Stefania Di Mauro-Nava: What motivated the city and university to address this challenge? What other projects have the Lead Innovation Team taken on? 

Heidi Beidinger: In December 2016, Reuters News published a stunning article about the extensive lead poisoning issue in the U.S. The article shined a spotlight on one South Bend neighborhood in particular, stating this neighborhood was experiencing an immediate lead poisoning public health crisis among our youngest and most vulnerable children. According to the report, this neighborhood (census tract 6) had the highest elevated blood lead levels; 31 percent of children tested from 2005 to 2015 had elevated levels. This was more than six times Flint, Mich.’s rate of elevated blood lead levels from the previous year.

In response to the headlines, Notre Dame faculty and community members came together to form the Lead Affinity Group, a grassroots community coalition, to unpack the community-wide lead poisoning crisis that was becoming increasingly clear and urgent. Our initial focus was to learn about the problem, identify and corral partners and resources, and to help families. We documented the extent of the problem and inventoried resources and leadership. All involved were compelled by the extent of the problem and the detrimental health outcomes affecting our community. This in turn led to the formation of the Lead Innovation Team at Notre Dame. One of the first priorities of LIT was to analyze child lead testing data available from the county board of health and the state. Matthew Sisk, of the Center for Digital Scholarship at the university library, performed a multivariate GIS analysis to gain a better understanding of the spatial nature of the problem and to help identify possible sources.

Professor Marya Lieberman and graduate student Meghanne Tighe from the department of chemistry, along with physics professor Graham Peaslee, developed a low-cost home lead screening kit that local high school students have used to collect samples in their own homes. Samples are brought back to a lab at Notre Dame for testing with an X-ray fluorometer.

Genevieve Miller: First and foremost, we needed to promote earlier testing and detection of impact for children. St. Joseph County’s deputy then-interim health officer agreed to promote “Lead Free by Three.” Second, we needed to pursue in-home testing in order to detect the primary source(s) of lead. Finally, the city needed to enforce lead safety policy for rental property landlords. The city introduced and signed into law the Rental Safety Verification Program (RSVP) Ordinance so that families are protected by proactive safe housing inspections.

Di Mauro-Nava: What have been some of your initial findings? Is this changing how you view safe and affordable housing in your community?

Gary Gilot: Unlike Flint, where the problem is with lead-contaminated water, analysis with the home screening kits showed that South Bend’s issue is with paint, as well as contaminated soil surrounding the home resulting from lead paint dust tracked in and out of houses, and from runoff from the roof. The goal of the safe and healthy homes team was to further develop effective and low-cost methods of conducting experiments in-home, together with lab-based experiments to reduce the risk of lead paint dust and chips exposure.

The team utilized methods such as vacuum HEPA filters, wiping windowsills, wiping contaminated shoes on doormats and mulching, among other protocols, on seven homes in the South Bend area. Hundreds of samples for various scenarios, materials and intervention techniques were tested through the in-home and lab experiments. Findings thus far include: 

  • We know which low-cost wet or dry dusting cloths are most effective at removing dust, as well as what level of effort is required to maximize benefits and when we reach diminishing returns for our time and effort cleaning.
  • We know that mulching overcontaminated soil under the roofline reduces lead exposure and that certain door mats are most effective at leaving residual lead outside the home rather than tracking it in.
  • Friction from opening and closing old lead-painted windows is the primary source of lead dust. Limiting which windows are operated is a simple yet effective commonsense practice until windows can be replaced.
  • Using furnace/air conditioner filters that get particle size removal down to 0.3 microns is worth the extra expense versus the cheapest furnace filters that capture no lead dust as the air in the house gets recirculated over and over through the furnace filter.
  • Early indications are that carpet contains some of the very highest concentrations of lead dust in the homes. A regular vacuum cleaner will just resuspend all that dust in the air column that you breathe, increasing the inhalation pathway of human exposure. A baby or toddler might roll around on the carpet with toys and ingest lead dust. A HEPA vacuum as a potential solution was disappointing in our test results. We did not see the high-lead dust concentrations on linoleum, tile or hardwood floors.
  • We thought indoor humidification of the air might reduce the hot-dry “dust bowl” effect and simulate the refreshing “April air” we love after a winter cooped up with the windows closed. We thought there might be a cleansing sweep effect of the air column to settle dust that might otherwise stay suspended in the air column we breathe for weeks. Our early results on this initial experiment are inconclusive.
Levine: How are some of the initial findings being used and implemented by the city and/or community? 

Miller: The city is building upon its current efforts to connect community partners and empower residents to make South Bend lead-safe. We have organized three more lead screening events in October, partnering with the school corporation and the county health department to host screenings in easily accessible locations.

Gilot: We have a start. There is some insight here, but we would surely like more data and more controlled experiments to do a more comprehensive effort here, but we have some useful insights that we hope early adopters will use and networkers will share. 

Di Mauro-Nava: What was the most surprising thing you learned during this process? 

Brockman: In general, we were surprised to learn about the complex set of challenges that people face in deciding to have their homes tested for lead. On the surface, it seems to have obvious benefits, but a negative test has ramifications that some people are understandably afraid to confront or unable to afford. 

Miller: The city of South Bend has applied for and been awarded federal HUD lead abatement grants. The funding is heavily constrained, leading to situations where the required paperwork presents a significant barrier for applicants. While thousands of homes are impacted, only eight homeowners have made it through the application successfully thus far due to program restrictions. 

Levine: Where will this project go from here? 

Brockman: The Lead Innovation Team is currently developing an automated procedure for testing samples, which will greatly increase the throughput. They are also beginning discussions with the IDEA Center, Notre Dame’s commercialization center, to explore ways to make lead screening scalable, sustainable and economically viable. We believe local creative solutions can mash up funding sources and goals for neighborhood housing reinvestment, energy efficient HVAC, building insulation and windows that solve lead issues and improve building heating and cooling efficiency, producing a payback that funds some of the lead remediation. We have hope that an integrated and standardized approach can produce better and more cost-effective holistic solutions versus uncoordinated siloed solutions that we can’t afford.

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.