Living Lead-Free

Sam Rose, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program Supervisor, Louisville Metro Public Health & Wellness.

Lead’s negative impact on health and Louisville’s efforts to eliminate it


By Josh Miller
Photos by Kathryn Harrington


Growing up, I can remember seeing cracked paint peeling away from the window sills in my house. Sometimes it became a focal point of interest as I picked at it to see what lay underneath. It never occurred to me that those paint chips could contain lead, or the long-term negative consequences lead exposure can have on children. 

In summer 2020, my IDEAS xLab team member Hannah Drake and I worked with Louisville Metro Public Health & Wellness’ Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) and Bates CDC on the Healthy Home, Healthy Community (HHHC) campaign. The primary focus was lead poisoning prevention and it was the first time I understood the ramifications of exposure for children. HHHC was the fourth round of billboards created with community members as part of One Poem At A Time, an effort we started in 2017. As COVID-19 disrupted our lives, we knew the campaign had to take the pandemic into account because it amplified existing housing injustices and disproportionately impacting Black, people of color and low-income communities in certain zip codes, including Smoketown and West Louisville. 

Members of Louisville Metro perform lead tests on a home in Portland using a Healthy Home Instant Lead Tester and a tester you can purchase at a home improvement store, with the change in color showing toxic levels of lead detected in the paint.

“Our families and our neighbors can be unwillingly exposed to lead in our homes, our soil and in products we purchase every day. We cannot allow lead exposure to steal our health and our futures,” said Dr. Monica Unseld, HHHC Campaign Advisor. 

One billboard featured mother Michelle Randolph and her daughters, who used a Healthy Home Instant Lead Tester to test the paint in their home. It read, “We tested our home for lead and thankfully we didn’t find any. It’s hard to be healthy at home when your home can be the thing making you sick.” The billboard campaign is estimated to have had over 1 million impressions, and the digital ad performed at 233% above the industry standard. It was just one part of Louisville’s fight against lead poisoning. 

Nick Hart demonstrates how to use an instant Lead Test Swab to test for toxic levels of lead in paint on the outside of a house.

“Louisville’s long history makes it vulnerable to the hazards presented by lead exposure. Use of lead in paint, gasoline and other products have accumulated in the places Louisvillians work, play and live,” said Nick Hart, Assistant Director for Louisville Metro Public Health & Wellness Environmental Health. “Louisville has champions in the battle against lead poisoning. The Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) and Lead Safe Louisville (LSL) have been working for decades to identify and remove lead for our neighborhoods.” 

Photo by Josh Miller.

Building on the decades of work described by Hart, Louisville is being recognized as a national leader in combating lead poisoning by the CDC, Public Health Institute (PHI) and the Center for Health Leadership & Practice (CHLP). A cross-sector team including CLPPP, LSL, IDEAS xLab, Louisville Grows and the University of Louisville’s School of Public Health and Information Sciences was selected to participate in the CDC-funded National Leadership Academy for the Public’s Health (NLAPH), which launched in January 2021, and provides national mentorship, leadership development and support for an applied health leadership project. 

Nick Hart, Assistant Director for Louisville Metro Public Health & Wellness Environmental Health.

“Numerous studies have shown that prenatal and/or early-life lead exposure can negatively impact how the brain develops. Early-life lead exposure can lead to permanent brain damage, reduced brain volume, reduced IQ and an increased risk for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),” shared Louisville NLAPH team member Brian Guinn, Ph.D., MPH, RN of University of Louisville. “Early life lead-associated brain damage can have dire consequences on interpersonal relationships, academic achievement and long-term gainful employment.” 

Guinn explained that, “Lead exposure primarily comes from two environmental sources: remnant lead paint and lead-contaminated topsoil. Homes built before 1950 that have not undergone lead remediation, often have remnant lead paint along interior and exterior window sills and doorways. These homes can also have lead-contaminated topsoil that runs along the sides of the house.” His recent research evaluated topsoil lead levels in Jefferson County and found that 9.4 percent of topsoil samples taken from the older neighborhoods had lead levels that exceeded 400 mg/kg, the EPA’s threshold for hazardous lead content in play areas.

Brian Guinn. Photo courtesy of Brian Guinn.

This research and Louisville’s available lead prevention resources will all be taken into account as we work together, and with community members, over the next year to develop and deploy a collaborative project through NLAPH with a focus on lead prevention. 

If you own a home or rental built before 1978 or want to learn more about lead exposure and available resources, visit bit.ly/CLPPPLou. Based on the age of a property or elevated blood lead levels in children, there are multiple ways to access grant-funded resources through Lead Safe Louisville, ranging from $5,000-$20,000 in support.

Sam Rose and Erin Wallace, Lead Program Coordinator, Office of Housing, Louisville Forward, pour vinegar.