Partnership to prevent child lead poisoning receives NSF boost | News | Notre Dame News

Students test lead paint on a South Bend home.  (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Students test lead paint on a South Bend home. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Thanks to new funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame will work with community health workers to develop new tests and technology to detect lead levels in homes.

“The current system for detecting lead hazards in homes treats children like testing instruments,” said Marya Lieberman, professor of analytical chemistry at Notre Dame. “Under this model, we wait until a child’s blood shows elevated levels of lead, and then that triggers city and county engagement.”

Lieberman is part of a team that includes three other Notre Dame faculty members and many community health partners working to rethink that system. And her bold new ideas just received a major grant from the NSF. At the heart of the funding is a new app that will speed access to resources and provide health officials and policymakers with better data.

Nitesh Chawla, Frank M. Freimann Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Notre Dame, will lead the team. Chawla, who is also the founding director of the university’s Lucy Family Institute for Data and Society, said the idea for the project grew out of the Michiana Community Health Coalition, a series of institute-sponsored meetings with community health professionals. Listening to those working on the front lines of community health provided insights into the “gaps” preventing scientific advances in the study of lead poisoning from improving the health of members of the local community.

Kimberly Green Reeves, who leads public relations for Beacon Health System, added that “there are barriers to entry all the way from testing to treatment. After we conduct the testing, we need to ensure that families have easy and equal access to the resources made available by healthcare providers, governments and public health agencies.” Green Reeves, who will serve as a key community partner in the project, said, “We’re excited about the role technology can play in helping us deliver a clear message to the community in a timely manner.”

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Jay Brockman, director of the Notre Dame Center for Civic Innovation, emphasized that the principle of solidarity will guide the team’s process of developing new technologies. “Real change requires listening,” Brockman said. “We need to understand what’s really going on in the neighborhoods to understand the barriers and work together to develop solutions that people really trust and use.”

Chawla added that co-creation is particularly important as lead poisoning disproportionately hits the most vulnerable members of the local community, whose voices are often ignored.

“We know that lead poisoning occurs primarily in low-income, minority communities,” he said. “Lead poisoning exacerbates the problems these neighborhoods face by impairing children’s development and adding additional barriers to their progress in life.”

Allison Zeithammer, communications director for the city of South Bend, said the city is pleased to also be a key partner in the project. “As a city government, we’re seeing firsthand how the problem of lead poisoning can impact South Bend residents,” she said. “But we also see how complex the topic is. So we understand this type of partnership that brings together healthcare systems, healthcare departments and researchers, all of whom want to achieve positive outcomes for residents.”

For Mark Fox, Assistant Health Commissioner for St. Joseph County, the project is an important step in the community’s relationship with Notre Dame.

“Over the past five years, lead risk has received renewed attention in St. Joseph County, and Notre Dame’s Lead Innovation Team has helped ramp up testing,” he said. “Now we can shift our focus upstream to ensure every child born in St. Joseph County has a safe home to return to. Notre Dame’s expertise in chemistry, innovation and data science will give us a clearer picture of where the risks lie so we can appropriately prepare and track.”

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He added: “It is a striking example of what can happen when the university puts its intellectual capital at the service of society.”

To learn more about Notre Dame’s ongoing partnership with local health professionals, visit the Michiana Community Health Coalition or contact its organizers Jessica Brookshire, Jen Lefever and Jill Pentimonti.

Contact: Brett Beasley, Author and Editor-in-Chief, Notre Dame Research, [email protected], 574-631-8183; @UNDResearch

Originally published by Brett Beasley at on 18 Oct.

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