The Lead Hands

By The Editors / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
When U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo announced a $4 million federal grant at a crowded Providence press conference last February, he was flanked by Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. and three-quarters of Rhode Island's Congressional delegation. It was the sort of occasion at which any politician would want to be seen: the HUD grant would be used to remove lead from contaminated homes throughout the city, which has what is thought to be the highest percentage in the country of children poisoned by lead. Vying for recognition, the politicians were lining up as protectors of the city's kids.

In the back of the room, away from the cameras and microphones, two young women sat watching closely, nearly lost in the crowd. Though anonymous, they are part of a group of Brown students who, over the course of seven years, were largely responsible for finding much of the evidence that led to the HUD grant. Providence knew it had a childhood lead problem, but until the students came along, the city did not know exactly why or where. Under the direction of environmental studies professor Harold Ward, whose course "Analysis and Resolution of Environmental Problems" united them all, the students pored over housing and health databases and mapped which houses sheltered poisoned children. Their efforts reached a crucial point last year, when five undergraduates and three graduate students recorded the precise characteristics of those houses, compiling the first comprehensive set of indicators that would enable the city to target homes most in need of help.

"We could not have done what we did without the help of Harold Ward and his students," says Luke Driver '91, deputy director for environmental policy in the Providence mayor's office. "HUD was very specific that we needed to know our problem, that we had to demonstrate how and where we were going to use the money to combat lead poisoning. The Brown students visually and quantifiably captured the problem for us."

uiding students through research with such immediate and gratifying results was precisely what Harold Ward hoped for when he founded the Center for Environmental Studies in 1979. The idea was to establish a program that would teach and sponsor research while encouraging public service as well. Students would receive classroom instruction as they earned a degree in environmental studies; at the same time, they would work on solving actual environmental problems alongside nonacademic partners in the community. The program's noble social and pedagogical vision has one further advantage: it's a practical way of providing students with the best education possible with limited resources.


"One of the challenges in working in this field," Ward says, sitting in his Angell Street office at the Urban Environmental Lab, which he and his students built in the early 1980s as a demonstration project for energy efficient living, "is that you have to draw on a lot of disciplines, and you don't have the resources to teach all of them. So students have to take courses in other departments. What we contribute is integration. And what I've discovered over the years is that the most effective way to do that is by sending students out to work on real-world problems. They see the forces that operate on a city."

In keeping with Ward's philosophy of learning by doing, every environmental studies concentrator is required in his or her junior year to take Environmental Studies 192, Ward's environmental-problem-solving course. Concentrators must also write a senior thesis, which usually involves researching a local environmental problem. "Working on real-world problems adds motivation," explains Ward, who has directed the environmental studies program for the past twenty years. "There are reality checks on it. You can't get away with sloppy work, because your work is going to get used. It's not just 'I wrote a bad paper and I got a bad grade' - it can mess somebody up."

Over the past two decades Ward, who is also a tenured Brown chemistry professor, has worked with his students on an array of environmental problems throughout Rhode Island, researching everything from dumps to greenhouse gases. In keeping with his approach, students choose the research topics, and the issue that has most captured their attention over much of the last decade is childhood lead poisoning. Since 1992, close to a dozen environmental studies concentrators have written theses about various pieces of the subject.

"What Harold and his students have been able to accomplish is amazing," says Lynn Bibeault, a toxicologist with the Rhode Island Department of Health who has reviewed their research to understand better what the state should be doing on the problem. "Harold may be quiet and unassuming, but he knows everybody involved and all sides of the issue. As a result, his students are prepared to make valuable contributions when they come to us."

Ward traces the department's interest in lead poisoning to Michael Muller '92, whose research project devised a way to measure indoor and outdoor lead levels. Many past and present environmental studies students credit Muller with spawning a generation of "lead heads." But Muller settled on the topic of childhood lead poisoning almost reluctantly. "I really didn't believe there was a lead poisoning problem in the United States," he says. Having arrived at Brown from Germany, he believed that lead paint had been banned for many decades in the United States, as was the case in Europe. What he discovered from Ward, Bibeault, and Bob Vanderslice, of the Rhode Island Department of Health, was that lead paint was not outlawed here until 1978. During a trip to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meeting in Boston, Muller also learned from Bibeault and Vanderslice that childhood lead poisoning rates in Rhode Island were higher than anywhere else in the country. The greatest shock to Muller was that no one understood precisely why.

Muller, a double concentrator in chemistry and environmental studies, swung into action. He set out to create a system of accurately measuring lead levels and became so engrossed in the project that he stayed an extra semester at Brown. Working with Ward and the Rhode Island Department of Health, Muller wrote part of his senior thesis - titled "A Thousand Points of Lead" - on the proper way to measure indoor lead levels. Data from the thesis were later used in writing Rhode Island's lead laws. "We didn't have real-life experience with data when we were drafting the lead laws," says Bibeault, who, like Vanderslice, is now an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Brown. "Michael gave us numbers that were realistic."

In his senior thesis, Muller also demonstrated that children can be poisoned by lead in soil as well as by lead paint in their homes. As a result, Rhode Island was the first state in the country to codify an acceptable level of lead in soil, and in 1992, Ward's ES 192 class adopted Muller's techniques to take lead samples throughout South Providence. Today, Muller concentrates on lead-poisoning issues for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm.

elping collect soil samples in that 1992 class was Dana Hanson '93. When it came time to choose her senior-thesis topic, Ward put her in touch with Bibeault and Vanderslice. Interning at the Rhode Island Department of Health, Hanson learned of the state's visiting nurses program, which targets kids at high risk for poor health. Hanson immediately saw a link between the program and the prevention of lead poisoning. "It just seemed like an obvious pairing to me," says Hanson, who is now a health researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. "Nurses were targeting home visits to high-risk kids, and lead poisoning most often occurs in a home environment." Hanson's senior thesis focused on a way to use the visiting nurses program to look for such lead hazards as chipped or peeling paint as well as to educate parents about the dangers of lead poisoning. The program was adopted by the state and is still in place today.


Meanwhile, other students, such as Mitch Simon '93, focused on teaching children and parents about lead poisoning. For his senior thesis, Simon, who is now a radiologist in Philadelphia, combined his interest in education and environmental studies to create a school-based science project that sent Brown students into fifteen local middle-school classrooms. Students enrolled in ES 111, the environmental studies program's introductory course, taught schoolchildren how to collect soil samples, which the children then tested with the help of Brown students. Whenever a sample showed a high lead content, an environmental studies concentrator would visit the site. The goal of the program, which ran for several years after Simon graduated, was to introduce students to scientific methods, to teach them about the dangers of lead poisoning, and to get them to educate their parents about lead hazards.

As always, the guiding hand was Harold Ward. "Harold really pushed me," Simon recalls. "I wrote and rewrote my senior thesis. Harold is very good at being there as an educator. And he is somewhat unique in the fact that he allows students to feel as if they are teaching themselves."

More recently, environmental studies concentrators have continued to work with community groups to educate citizens about the dangers of childhood lead poisoning. Such relationships, no matter how well-intentioned, can be prickly, however. Neighbors of research universities fear being used by an endless procession of students as guinea pigs in scientific research. In recent years, many have demanded earlier access to any data collected in their neighborhoods, particularly when the data might indicate the presence of a health threat.


For their part, researchers resist going public with their findings too soon. The scientific method aims to ensure that published data have been proven to be reliable through repetition and careful analysis, and this does not always mesh with the impatience of neighborhood groups. Working with such groups can be more difficult than working with state agencies, admits Ward. "Nonprofit groups work at a different pace than we do," he says. "But we need access to gather data, and we couldn't and shouldn't have access on our own."

The issue flared up in 1995, when a Providence neighborhood group asked Ward and his students to help it gather information about lead levels in the Elmwood section of the city. The Elmwood group and Brown's environmental studies concentrators were soon embroiled in a dispute over what could be asked of neighborhood residents and how research protocols would be used. The controversy was soon resolved, but the town-and-gown issues it raised were all too clear. "While we will continue to work cooperatively with community groups on issues related to lead," Ward says, "I am a bit leery of working solely with them. This is not to blame them. It's just a matter of their having a whole other set of priorities."

Irwin Becker, executive director of the Greater Elmwood Neighborhood Housing Association, became so upset with Ward and his students in 1995 that he took the matter to then-president Vartan Gregorian. "Any university has its own agenda," he says, "and we are always leery of working with students because you never know how dedicated they are or when they will be flying off to their next vacation." In retrospect, however, Becker believes the collaboration was fruitful. "It was an excellent experience for us," he says. "It works both ways. The class is able to focus on a real issue, and we reap the benefits of their research." Ward adds: "The issue is one of gathering data and taking value from a community and not returning any. I don't think that has ever been the case with our efforts."

Relations between environmental studies students and most advocacy groups have generally benefited both. Ward's students, who have lately examined the insurance industry's responsibility for compensating families affected by childhood lead poisoning, have in some instances testified in court cases involving lead poisoning. "They have been an incredible resource," says Roberta Hazen Aaronson, who has employed several Brown students at the Childhood Lead Action Project. "They bring energy and often a different perspective to addressing the problem. And when you're dealing with a massive problem like lead poisoning, that is invaluable."

ard and his students got one of their biggest boosts last year, when the mayor's office asked Ward why the city's children were being lead poisoned at rates much higher than anywhere else in the country. The city and the environmental studies department had collaborated in 1997, when environmental studies professor Caroline Carp and her students, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, devised a system to help the city clean up its hundreds of vacant lots. "It was an extremely productive partnership," says Luke Driver, sitting in his office at city hall. "So when it came time for the city to undertake the massive initiative of understanding and creating a strategy to address lead poisoning, it was a natural progression for us to ask them to be involved." Of course, it didn't hurt that both Driver and his colleague Rachel Ede '97, a city hall policy associate, were Brown graduates.


After being granted access to confidential city and state databases, Ward and his students began to address a critical question they had been asking themselves for years: are there characteristics of a house that indicate it is likely to present a lead-poisoning risk to children? "It was such a tangible issue that we could all easily see the importance of the work," says graduate student Christy Plumer, who, along her classmates in ES 192, spent the spring semester of 1998 hunched over data. "The work wasn't very glamorous," adds Kim Mowery '99, "but it was incredibly useful to see how a city runs."

As the students and Ward went about their research, Mayor Cianci appointed a fifty-four-person safe-housing lead task force that eventually drafted a citywide strat-egy for combating childhood lead poisoning. "The task force could not have done what it did without the students who provided the data," says Bianca Gray, the mayor's deputy director for health and education. "Each meeting they would come with more information, powerful information."


Ward and his students documented that children living in a residence that had been cited for a housing-code violation were 90 percent more likely to be poisoned by lead than a child in a house with no violation. They also found significant correlations for houses whose violation was classified as environmental and for houses that were occupied by someone other than their owners. Ward and his students also concluded that children living at properties assessed at the lower range of property values are 52 percent more likely to have lead-associated poisoning than children living in the upper property-value range. "A lot of things we saw, people expected," Ward explains, "but nobody had shown this to be the case."

Still, he adds, they found unexpected correlations as well. The biggest surprise was that children living in federally subsidized housing were 45 percent more likely to be poisoned than children not living in such housing. "These houses are supposed to be clean," Ward says. "Federal law states that these houses are to be inspected for lead before anyone can occupy them." Ward's testimony on the subject at a Rhode Island State House hearing piqued the interest of the state's Attorney General, whose office is now exploring the question of liability.

Remaining unanswered was the question of why Providence's lead-poisoning rate is so high - more than six times greater than Boston's, for example. Members of the mayor's task force were split between two theories. One group reasoned that Providence simply had more old houses than other cities; because most of them were built before lead paint was banned, more of the paint was still around. A smaller group believed that, for unknown reasons, the problem was likely concentrated in a few relatively small areas.

Christy Plumer and Kim Mowery decided to remain in Providence last summer to try to resolve the issue once and for all. "I think both Christy and I felt that this was not only a good topic for our theses," says Mowery, "but a way we could get involved in research that would be applied and help the city make policy decisions. But I don't think we ever imagined how much of an impact we would have." By the end of the summer, the two women had found that 60 percent of the children in Providence with elevated lead levels in their blood were distributed among only 2 percent of the city's housing. When the students looked at all the city's lead-poisoning cases, they found the children were living in only 5 percent of Providence's homes, lending credence to the theory that the problem was geographically concentrated. "This reality changed the perception of the whole problem," says Ward. "It went from an enormous problem to a small list of houses that, if addressed, would have a huge impact on the problem."

Armed with the $4 million grant from HUD announced at the Cuomo press conference, the city will now use the data provided by Ward and his students to train lead-abatement workers to clean up 675 low-income houses. Meanwhile, the Childhood Lead Action Project is hoping to use this same research to hold the owners of these houses accountable. "The Brown students' data" says Roberta Hazen Aaronson, "will live on and impact the issue of lead poisoning for years to come."

Richard P. Morin is a freelance writer based in southeastern Massachusetts.



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