MICHIGAN CITY — The Michigan City School Board is coming under fire after rejecting a proposal requiring incoming kindergartners receive lead poison screenings.
Lead paint is believed to be the biggest culprit behind Michigan City’s high percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels, and some people argue the best way to uncover the extent of the problem is to get more children tested.
“That’s the problem. Nobody knows how bad it is,” said Deborah Chubb, the board member who sponsored the requirement.
Indiana law allows school boards to pass a rule requiring lead testing if they so choose, Chubb said.
The problem is not unique to Michigan City. In Indiana and across the United States, too few children are screened for lead poisoning at a young age — when developing brains are most vulnerable.
Despite Chubb’s push, the School Board last week voted 4-3 against the measure.
The recommendation was one of several pushed by Mayor Ron Meer’s Committee on Lead — formed in 2017 shortly after national news reports highlighted the city’s disproportionate number of children testing positive for lead between 2005 and 2015.
In one census tract in western Michigan City, more than 19 percent of children under age 7 tested had high blood lead levels, including confirmatory and preliminary testing, data show. In other tracts, percentages range from 4.6 to 18.5 percent. In comparison, more than 20 percent of East Chicago children in the western part of the lead-contaminated USS Lead Superfund site had high blood levels, records show.
Nationally, about 2 percent of children tested between 2007 and 2014 had elevated blood lead levels.
Despite recent efforts to offer lead testing at Michigan City back-to-school rallies through HealthLinc mobile vans and other children-oriented events, Chubb said too few students receive lead screenings. Optional testing isn't enough, particularly for low-income families who may not be educated about lead poisoning, she said.
Rob Johnson, member of the Committee on Lead and Michigan City Social Justice Group, said testing at a young age is critical because there are no observable symptoms, though the impact on developing brains is irreversible, Johnson said.
"A parent would have no idea their child was having brain damage, unless the test is done. Every time you find a kid is lead poisoned, it's a chance to stop it," he added.
The Michigan City Social Justice Group, Healthlinc, and the New Disciple Love Fellowship church are hosting a health fair and cookout from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, where parents can have children tested for lead.
“It’s really disappointing and unacceptable the board declined to take any action on this,” Johnson said. “I could see them making a delayed rollout, but they didn’t even do that.”
Meer called the board's vote "disappointing," saying early detection is key.
The Committee on Lead applied for highly competitive federal housing funds last year for lead paint abatement projects in older homes, but the bid was unsuccessful. The committee recently reapplied this year for the grant, and are pursuing a pilot program to locally fund lead abatement projects.
Meer said the City Council has committed to supporting matching funds if they are able to obtain the grants. There's only so much local governments can do without additional help from the city's state and federal counterparts, he said.
"We're trying to be proactive," he said.
Board President Don Dulaney did not respond to request for comment.
Average percentage of kids tested that had elevated blood levels over 2005-2015: Green: 0-5% | Blue: 6-9% | Gray: 10-15% | Orange: 16-20% | Red: More than 20%