By Kristin Jones
There are neighborhoods in Denver where nearly one in 10 children tested show high levels of lead in their blood, according to an analysis of city data by The Colorado Trust last year.
That’s an alarming rate—higher than Flint, Mich. at the height of its water crisis. The Denver tests are unconfirmed, and some are likely to be false positives. But the risks of permanent developmental damage to local kids are real enough that the city applied for and recently won funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to address lead risks in 130 Denver homes over the next three years.
The $2.8 million grant makes Denver the only municipality in the state that can offer this kind of help to families living in housing with lead paint that’s in poor condition—the biggest source of lead exposure for children nationwide. Many of the most deeply affected neighborhoods in Denver are communities of color or have high rates of poverty.
Candi CdeBaca is an activist who grew up in the north Denver neighborhood of Swansea and lives there now. She says she’s hopeful that the funding will be put to good use in her zip code of 80216, where preliminary tests have shown as many as 9.5 percent of children have increased levels of lead in their blood. CdeBaca believes a high prevalence among neighborhood children of health problems like learning disabilities—which can be a result of exposure to lead—are too often blamed on genetics or family history.
But she’s concerned that some of the people that the grant is meant to benefit won’t be able to take advantage of it. Renters may be afraid of anything that could increase the value of their homes and create an incentive for landlords to raise rents, at a time when gentrification is pushing out long-time residents—many of them Latino.
Others don’t know the risks associated with lead and other pollutants that have long been endemic here.
“We’ve been told for so long that it’s not a problem that people actually don’t believe it’s a problem,” CdeBaca says.
(The Trust has found that many families around the state are never offered a blood test that’s recommended for children living in older homes or in low-income households, so they may not know they’ve been affected.)
The funding is targeted only at lead-based paint hazards, not other sources of lead. CdeBaca believes that may be missing the point. The 80216 zip code is one of the most polluted in the country (the very most polluted, by some measures). While lead paint is always a concern with older houses, CdeBaca points out that Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are part of an existing Superfund site, and bear the toxic legacy of industrial pollution and the ongoing damage of a major interstate, I-70, that cuts through the neighborhood.
The area is also the site of major construction as developers move in.
“We have construction happening on every other block,” says CdeBaca. “Most of these construction sites are not being really attentive to the fact that it’s a Superfund site. You have all these pollutants blowing around in the air and it’s being treated very casually.”
CdeBaca is part of a coalition of nonprofit groups that have been fighting a planned $1.2 billion expansion of I-70 through the neighborhood. She and others believe the move will only increase the environmental burden here.
Denver is one of only 48 state and local government agencies across the country to receive the lead abatement funding, which will be matched in part by $275,000 from the city’s Office of Economic Development. The program is limited to certain zip codes in Denver where there’s evidence of high rates of child exposure to lead. Some of the neighborhoods that directly border these hotspots won’t be eligible for funding, and none outside of Denver boundaries.
The funding will be available to people living in housing that was built before 1970 and that has deteriorated lead-based paint or high levels of lead dust. Households will also have to show they earn at or below 80 percent of median income, and be home to a child under the age of six at least part of the time.
The qualifying zip codes are 80204, 80205, 80207, 80211, 80216, 80219, 80220 and 80223. That includes the neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Sun Valley, Villa Park, West Colfax, Cole, Clayton, Whittier, North Park Hill, Northeast Park Hill, Sunnyside, Highland, Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, Westwood, Barnum, Barnum West, Mar Lee, Valverde, East Colfax and Athmar Park.
President Donald Trump has advocated for deep cuts to programs that fund lead abatement around the country, including some administered by HUD.