Keeping kids safe

Many people may believe that because lead-based paint has gone out of fashion due to health concerns, that children are no longer at risk for lead poisoning. However, Iowa’s lead poisoning rate is three times the national average, and Marshalltown’s rate is four times the national average. In recognition of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, running Oct. 23-29, members of the Lead Task Force for Marshall County share their expertise and offer ways to safeguard vulnerable populations against such poisoning.

Lead poisoning is most commonly a threat for pregnant women and children under six years old. Lead paint can be found in homes constructed before 1978. Pottery, toys and jewelry decorated with lead-based paint also can be toxic. Local cultural concerns include Burmese women using makeup that contains lead. Members of the task force have also heard of people believing that pregnant women should consume pieces of clay pottery to improve pre-natal health.

“Around 80-85 percent of housing in Marshalltown was built before 1978. That means 8,000 out of 10,000 residential units are affected. That’s a very serious issue,” said Housing and Community Development Director Michelle Spohnheimer.

Lead paint and lead dust can be found around friction/impact surfaces such as doorways and windows. Because lead has a naturally sweet taste, children can be drawn to licking and eating paint chips from these surfaces. Even setting down an edible treat such as a cookie on a contaminated windowsill can harm a child. Soil quality can also be compromised when exterior paint chips and dust fall around the foundation of a residence, leading to children and pets tracking in the contaminated earth.

The sugar analogy is often used to explain how it takes such a miniscule amount of lead to pose a hazard. Consider the size of a 1-gram packet of sugar. If you take that same amount of lead particles and evenly spread them over 100 rooms, (each measuring 10 feet by 10 feet), it would leave dust levels of 100 g/ft2, – an amount of lead that is more than twice the federal standard (40 g/ft2) for a hazardous level of lead on floors.

Lead poisoning symptoms in children include developmental delay, learning difficulties, weight loss, fatigue and hearing issues, and can lead to death.

“If a child tests high for lead in the blood, I get notified,” said Donna Binning, lead nurse at MICA. “If it’s a really high level I go into the home to figure out how to help. The child will get blood levels retested after six months, and again after three if there is no improvement … kids should be tested yearly through age six, and they have to be tested before entering kindergarten. Kids in the WIC program automatically get tested.”

Help is available for people negatively impacted by lead in their homes. The City of Marshalltown Lead Hazard Control Program can help to replace windows, siding and other painted surfaces with the aid of federal grant money. Applicants need to qualify based on income, and both homeowners and landlords are eligible to apply.

Members of the task force go into residences and evaluate lead levels in the home and surrounding soil.

“We have to stabilize paint that has deteriorated by priming and repainting,” said Joyce Brown, program manager for the city’s federal lead grant. “We will strip the wood bare, put on new siding and remove contaminated soil. We take 10 days to fix the problem, moving the family out of the residence into a ‘safe house.'”

“When an official inspector finds lead in a residence, the landlord is required by law to disclose this information, but a large percentage of them do not,” said Housing and Community Development Director Michelle Spohnheimer. “We spend an average of $14,500 dollars per house making repairs.”

Applications for assistance are available from the City of Marshalltown Housing and Community Development Department located in the Municipal Building at 36 North Center Street in Marshalltown. You can also find and print an application from the city’s web page at: For more information, contact the Lead Hazard Control Program staff at 641-754-6583.


Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or