It was a shock to learn that children in Fresno are manifesting lead levels in their blood that are three times higher than that of the children in Flint, Michigan. Flint is notorious for its severe contaminated water problem which drew prolonged national attention.
The children in Fresno about whom I am writing live in ZIP code 93701, which is not only the poorest zip code in Fresno but also the poorest ZIP code in the entire state having more than 1,000 residents.
I know something about conditions in 93701, because I serve on the board of directors of Reading and Beyond, which is led by Luis Santana. It is an 18-year-old, local, nonprofit organization which is working hard to transform 93701 into the Family Success Zone.
Located just north of the downtown area in central Fresno, 93701 is home to Jefferson, Lowell, Webster and Yokomi elementary schools and Tehipite Middle School. These schools eventually feed into Roosevelt High School.
A study by the California Department of Public Health shows that 14 percent of the children in 93701 have an elevated lead level, which could come from a variety of sources, the most common being water pipes and paint. Lead can cause mild to severe brain damage. Specific effects from exposure to lead in children include lowered IQ, hyperactivity disorder, hearing impairment and disruption of balance.
What is more, neurological effects of lead in children have been documented at low exposure levels once thought to cause no harmful effects. And some of these effects may be carried over to adulthood.
Many of the 93701 families, of whom 85 percent live in rental housing, are victims of substandard facilities. These are some of the people whom Mayor Lee Brand’s long-anticipated systematic code-inspection ordinance was designed to help. The Bee’s revealing series about substandard facilities in the series “Living in Misery” clearly hit the mark in 93701.
There are over 5,000 school-age children in 93701, so hundreds of them may be showing some effects from lead poisoning. Is it any wonder that children in these public schools may have test scores that are lower than their more fortunate Fresno peers?
The lead level is only part of the problem. More than half of the families and about three-quarters of the children live below the poverty level, with annual family incomes of about $19,000, or less than half the average Fresno family income.
About half of the adults do not have high school diplomas or GEDs, and about 30 percent have not completed ninth grade. Research has shown time and again that income is associated with education level and school success.
Reading and Beyond is committed to transforming this ZIP code through education, job training and healthy-living programs for the whole family. Its programs start with the prenatal years for pregnant mothers and parents of infants and toddlers; move on to preschool to help bring young children to readiness for kindergarten; after-school programs in kindergarten through 12th grade for academic support; and for adults, GED study and the Fresno Bridge Academy, which provides skills assessment, vocational training and job counseling.
This is an enormous undertaking, and one which will take many years to accomplish through intensive intervention. Reading and Beyond employs Family Navigators, who make home visits to set up individual goal plans. Help provided might be:
▪ Transportation to get to medical appointments or job interviews.
▪ Eyeglasses to replace the ones that are now held together with tape.
▪ Intervention with a landlord to insist on vital electrical or water repairs or an exterminator.
▪ Support with children’s school problems for parents who may not speak English or have little experience dealing with school personnel.
▪ Holding an eviction at bay until satisfactory alternate housing is found.
▪ Referral for counseling for children or adults.
These are just some of the problems that the Family Navigator can help with through the trust that is built up between the family and the Navigator during a long-term relationship.
Reading and Beyond is going to educate its Family Navigators about lead poisoning and develop a brochure in English and Spanish and a short video to show to families during home visits to increase their awareness of this problem.
But it will be up to the city-code inspectors to take on the serious lead problem immediately and give priority to 93701. With all the other educational and economic challenges that families in this ZIP code have to deal with, let’s give as much support as possible to eradicating the insidious challenge of lead exposure.
Francine M. Farber is vice chair of the board of directors of Reading and Beyond.