A faculty-student research team at Franklin & Marshall College, long at work with nonprofit partners and government officials in Lancaster to identity residents at risk for lead poisoning, has received a nearly $700,000 federal grant to continue its efforts.
The research is led by Harriet Okatch and Jennifer Meyer, assistant professors of public health in the fields of biology and government, respectively. They received a three-year, $699,139 lead technical studies award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The grant, "Evaluating the long-term efficacy of residential lead remediation and its impact on children's cognitive levels in the City of Lancaster, PA," builds on previous work by the Lead Poisoning Prevention Team, led by Okatch.
The grant also will support research efforts of the students who work on the team including, Hoi Lam, a junior public health biology major who has been working with Okatch since her first year at F&M.
“My research experience has been informative and interesting, to say the least,” Lam said. “I was never aware of such an issue, but this research has taught me a lot about the implications of what lead poisoning can do to the body and how we as students can help in building awareness.”
Eight other students, as well as 13 recent alumni, are serving or have served on the team since it began its work in 2017.
“Professor Okatch has taught so much in the public health field beyond what I thought public health really was,” Lam said. “I planned to apply to medical school after college, but the more I think about it, I really want to pursue a dual degree—a medical doctorate and a master’s degree in public health. I believe that my research in understanding public health concerns has helped me and encouraged me to pursue a career in this field. It also has persuaded me to be a public health biology major, which I truly enjoy.”
Among the work of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Team was identifying the contributing factors to the high levels of lead poisoning: limited knowledge about lead poisoning, renters in apartments that are not lead mitigated, and a low health priority for families trying to put food on the table.
According to Okatch and Meyer, studies have demonstrated that dust from lead-based paint is a major source of lead in children. Lead-based paint was banned in 1978, but children living in homes built before then are at a higher risk of elevated blood-lead levels compared to children living in homes built after 1978.
“A large proportion of homes in Lancaster were built before 1978, which makes Lancastrians very susceptible to lead exposure,” Okatch said.
Children in Lancaster who received a lead test in 2018, had blood lead levels of 9.18 percent, greater than the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended threshold. Lead exposure in children is associated with brain and nervous system damage, lower IQ, delayed growth and development, delayed speech, behavioral challenges and, during adolescence and adulthood, increased violence, crime and incarceration.
The researchers have two purposes for the grant. While Okatch will direct the evaluation of 400 Lancaster homes remediated over 18 years to determine the long-term effectiveness of lead remediation, Meyer will direct the component of the grant for investigating the critical age in a child’s life at which improvements to the lead environment positively affect cognitive performance.
“We plan to recruit 700 children, aged 5-11 years old, who have lived in remediated and/or non-remediated homes, and administer a short cognitive assessment to each child,” Meyer said. “Using residential histories of the children, we will then estimate the impact of duration and age of residence in remediated homes on cognitive performance.”
The F&M researchers have worked with several community collaborations, and under this grant, they will work closely with Susan Baldrige, executive director of the Partnership for Public Health, and Darren Parmer, a risk assessor, lead inspector and project manager for the City of Lancaster’s Lead Hazard Control grant.
Also, F&M Associate Professor of Mathematics Danel Draguljic joins the team as a statistical consultant for this project.
According to Okatch and Meyer, “Our focus on lead-paint remediation will allow us to improve current methods for mitigating lead hazards by providing new evidence for the benefits of lead-paint remediation, and [by] understanding the ages of children in which there are the greatest returns to remediation.”