By Ruth Ann Norton
President and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative
The past few months have reawakened us to the continuing threat from lead poisoning. The horrifying scope of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the city water supply was contaminated with high levels of lead, has shocked the nation. Sadly, similar problems are confronting cities and communities across the country. It's a national emergency that demands an urgent response focused on prevention of this entirely avoidable problem.
The good news is that policymakers and advocates are refocused on the issue and looking for better approaches. In Maryland, where the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative's (GHHI) work first focused, decades of work has led to stronger policies that have reduced the number of children with elevated lead levels by 97 percent. Pediatricians, nurses and other healthcare providers played a vital role in educating parents, testing kids and helping authorities follow through with treatment and other interventions. We continue to push for reforms that will eliminate all lead poisoning in the state.
However, our work has expanded significantly in recent years. While preventing lead poisoning remains a key focus, we are now looking holistically at the entire home – to make sure children and families live in conditions that are healthy, safe, more affordable and environmentally sustainable over the long term.
Our efforts are gaining strength and financial support from diverse partners, including the federal government and national foundations, which are interested in new, smarter approaches that use resources more efficiently to prevent childhood health problems.
Public health officials and healthcare providers are also vital partners, increasingly recognizing the critical need to make sure children and families live in homes that are safe and healthy, free of hazards that contribute to health problems such as asthma. Seven million children in the United States suffer from asthma, and research shows that 40 percent of asthma episodes are attributable to home-based environmental health hazards such as mold or pests.
A child's asthma can cripple a family, especially those with lower incomes. Children end up in the hospital and miss school. Parents are often forced to miss work to care for children.
The enormous costs of treating asthma and other pediatric health problems are often borne by public and private health insurance programs, as well as hospitals and other providers. Too often we are only responding to the problem and wasting resources. Instead, we should be putting more resources into preventing these health problems, beginning with making homes healthier.
GHHI is utilizing our experience in Pay for Success to build out capitalization needed by state and local governments to help scale efforts in lead poisoning. GHHI also engages with its partners from major grants such as the federal Social Innovation Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Programs in these cities are working with local healthcare organizations to advance and evaluate new models of funding home-based interventions that produce measurable outcomes such as reducing asthma-related hospitalizations, emergency department visits, healthcare costs – as well as missed school and work days. GHHI provides technical support to these cities as they explore viable models of care.
These interventions include addressing unsafe lead paint conditions, removing asthma triggers and fixing problems such as leaky plumbing that can lead to mold or other health risks. Our partners also work closely with the families to make sure they know how to keep the house healthy and prevent asthma attacks.
Over time, we will demonstrate that these interventions are cost-effective and should be part of ongoing preventive health spending by public agencies and others – akin to pediatric immunizations and physical exams.
Healthcare providers are key partners in our healthy-home work. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, we are partnering with Health Net of West Michigan, the Asthma Network of West Michigan, the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan and Spectrum Health. We are excited to work closely with those who best understand the home-based health issues that children and their families are facing.
We urge maternal and child health providers to get involved with these kinds of efforts and help us transform how we think about – and mitigate – the causes that contribute to pediatric health problems. The stakes are enormous, and so are the rewards. Time after time, we hear the good news: our interventions are leading to dramatic health improvements for kids. The number of hospital visits drops, children do better in school and parents are able to work regularly and not be constantly worried about a recurrence that will disrupt the entire family.
The bottom line: smart investments in healthy homes foster healthy families and stronger communities.
Ruth Ann Norton is President and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. She has worked for more than 25 years to address lead poisoning issues and make homes safer, healthier and more sustainable.