Why Lead Safety Has Become Cleveland Clinic’s Top Priority for Community Health

$50 million pledge will help remove sources of lead exposure from Cleveland homes

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The healthiest communities do two things exceptionally well: prevent disease and care for their young ones. That truth defines Cleveland Clinic’s approach to public health, says Cleveland Clinic CEO and President Tom Mihaljevic, MD.

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In Ohio, the intersection of disease prevention and childhood care is perhaps most evident in the issue of lead exposure. According to the Ohio Department of Health, an estimated 67% of all housing units across the state were built before 1980 and contain lead-based hazards. Children living in Cuyahoga County are at the highest risk for lead exposure, and Cleveland is at the epicenter of this public health crisis, with lead-poisoning rates nearly four times the national average.

Being exposed to lead damages the brain and nervous system, slows growth and development, and results in learning and behavioral problems. There is no cure and no way to reverse the damage from chronic lead exposure. Prevention is the only effective approach.

“I want Cleveland to be safe for all children, and I know that lead exposure is a problem we can solve,” says Dr. Mihaljevic. “The prevention of childhood lead poisoning has become our top priority for community health in 2022.”

In connection, Cleveland Clinic recently pledged $50 million to the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition and the United Way of Greater Cleveland. The funds will be used to identify and remove harmful sources of lead exposure from Cleveland homes.

“Cleveland Clinic will partner with other healthcare organizations to address this challenge,” says Dr. Mihaljevic. “It is our collective responsibility to make the communities we all live in lead safe.”

Screening is one step toward eliminating lead exposure

Lead poisoning is a silent condition. Children with elevated lead levels rarely have obvious symptoms, which is why screening is essential.

Each year, Cleveland Clinic Children’s screens thousands of youth for elevated blood lead levels in doctor’s offices and at early childhood learning centers. Those who test positive for lead receive ongoing medical care, counseling, education and a referral to a network of community resources.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that each dollar invested in eliminating lead exposure results in a return of at least $17. That represents a net savings of nearly $200 billion in overall societal costs, including the costs of healthcare, lost earnings, lost tax revenue, special education and crime.

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“This is not about saving money,” emphasizes Dr. Mihaljevic. “This is about saving children and saving communities. Lead exposure can cause children serious long-term harm that impacts the rest of their lives. It prevents them from reaching their full potential.”

Making all Cleveland rental homes built before 1978 lead safe

Cleveland Clinic’s recent pledge is in addition to the $2.5 million it committed to the cause in September 2021 and the $17 million pledged by the City of Cleveland. These and contributions from other donors support a Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition fund that provides landlords with loans, grants and incentives to remediate lead in homes. The fund, now with approximately $115 million, is large enough to ensure that all rental homes in Cleveland built before 1978 are lead safe. Funds are used to assist homeowners, assist families being displaced due to lead poisoning, and improve lead screening and testing rates, among other efforts.

“Our communities can only be safe and healthy when every person has the opportunity to live in a safe and healthy home,” says Dr. Mihaljevic. “By partnering with organizations like United Way and the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, we are helping our neighbors to prosper and live healthy lives.”

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