By Candace Jackson, Educator Consultant, Lead and Toxics Program
Lead – the heavy metal found in older homes and paint as well as in the environment – is hard to see, but very toxic. We are working to raise the visibility of the dangerous effects of lead, especially on children’s brain development and the work that it takes to reduce exposure to it in our community. And we could not do it without our amazing community-based partners. I sat down with Pastor Jimmie James from B.E.S.T to learn more about how he and his team are educating their neighbors and affecting change.
Pastor Jimmie, tell me a little bit about B.E.S.T. What is your organization’s mission?
B.E.S.T. is an organization in south King County that primarily provides mentoring and support to people who are in transition – homelessness to housing, incarceration to community integration, domestic violence to surviving and thriving, chemical dependency to self-sufficiency. We provide access to resources and build relationships with people. We want to make sure they are part of the community and we become their neighbor. We also work to inform people about the challenges of our systems in ways that relate to the issues they are facing on a daily basis.
It is important that we also focus on opportunities to be part of policy and systems change by inviting community members to collaborate with us as we build partnerships with other institutions to create changes.
Why is lead poisoning prevention an important topic for the people in your community?
People of color are usually more likely to face poverty and are more likely to be in old housing or substandard housing – which means they are more likely to be exposed. People are aware that their housing may be creating unidentified illnesses and the health of their housing is likely impacting their children – but they don’t exactly know what or how.
Of course, they are concerned about their children just like anyone else, but there are gaps in awareness. Just because they know there is a problem doesn’t mean they know what the root of that problem, the magnitude of it, or how to address it. Lead poisoning hasn’t been taken as seriously in Washington, and we are helping them understand that many kids may have been affected by it.
Plus, we know there are gaps across many of the systems they touch. Their doctors are not asking about their environment. A child might have lead poisoning, but the questions are not being asked. Community members are suspicious especially if they are in housing where their landlords are already not responsive to their complaints.
They know if they don’t stand up and say something about it, their families may be harmed.
What are some important things you are doing to help prevent exposures to lead? What work have you done this past year and what impact did it have?
We know lead poisoning is an invisible danger to the community, and we want to do everything we can to inform, educate, and involve community members in education and testing.
We do this by working with other organizations in the community to push awareness and education. Everywhere we go, we share the information we’ve learned over the past year – in both organized meetings and informally.
As a result, it has become a norm to ask people about the age of their housing and whether their kids have been tested. We let them know that we are part of a group effort to increase awareness and encourage them to learn more, including how to look for assistance and help with the issue.
B.E.S.T. is making great strides, but you can’t solve the problem alone. What else needs to be done to solve this problem?
The main thing that needs to happen is a continued growing collaboration between government and community-based organizations to do more information sharing.
We need more resources to educate the communities at large across the state – not just here in King County. It would be great to promote a strong, state-wide initiative to educate and test with some accountability to make sure our kids are healthy. Parents need the knowledge to know what to ask for and the ability to access the resources that currently exist. Lower-income communities typically have not been informed and focusing there is a good place to start.
We also need stronger policies around rental housing to make sure people are well informed about lead prevention in housing – beyond an EPA pamphlet. At least 95% of people I’ve talked to this year had no clue their housing may be putting them at risk. More landlord engagement will be important in building lead awareness and supporting solutions.
It would be great if healthcare systems supported providers in following the federal mandate to test Medicaid-eligible kids at 12 and 24 months and encouraged thorough screening for those who are not Medicaid eligible.
Lots to do, but we’re making progress!