Community Health Leader Alum Honored for Protecting Kids from Lead Poisoning

    • November 17, 2009

In 1993, the Baltimore Sun proclaimed that “efforts to reduce childhood lead poisoning are doomed to fail.” But that depressing headline did not deter Ruth Ann Norton, B.A., from joining the fight to prevent children from overexposure to the dangerous metal.

In 1993, Norton became executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, and ever since the press coverage of the problem has improved—and so has children’s health. Since Norton took the job, childhood lead poisoning rates in Maryland have dropped a staggering 95 percent—the sharpest statewide drop in the nation. The coalition has also helped lower rates of childhood lead poisoning in Missouri and Delaware.

For her role in generating this decline, Norton—a 2005 recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leader Award—received the Brava! Women Business Achievement Award in July from SmartCEO, a business trade magazine that publishes in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The good news hasn’t stopped there.

In September, Norton’s group won the Child Advocate Award from the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics for its work in helping children live healthier lives. The coalition was the first non-medical group to receive the award.

And in October, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced it will provide $1 million to support the coalition’s Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, a project to create safer and healthier homes in disadvantaged communities.

In addition, HUD, which currently funds several coalition projects, also granted $10 million to three of the coalition’s partners to undertake similar healthy homes initiatives.

“We have established a reputation for getting the job done, and one that is synonymous with civic leadership and integrity,” Norton says.

Coalition Tackles a Top Environmental Hazard Facing U.S. Kids

The Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning was founded in 1986 as a parent advocacy organization aimed at preventing lead poisoning, one of the top environmental hazards threatening U.S. children.

Children under age six and pregnant women are at greatest risk of suffering from exposure to lead because it impairs proper physical and cognitive development in young children, infants and fetuses. Exposure can cause disorders ranging from hyperactivity and learning disabilities to severe mental disabilities, coma and death.

More than 250,000 children across the country are affected by lead poisoning, and studies show these children are more likely have trouble in school and with the law. There is no cure for lead poisoning, and its effects are permanent.

But exposure is entirely preventable, and that is what inspired Norton, a former investment banker, to take up the cause. “The fact that we could eliminate this tragic and costly problem just seemed too compelling not to get involved,” she says.

Under Norton’s direction, the coalition has grown into a successful business that offers a range of direct services to remove the threat of lead poisoning. It also offers services in the areas of training, education, the law, public policy and technical assistance. During Norton’s tenure, more than 20 legislative packages addressing healthy housing and lead poisoning prevention have become law.

Although Norton has accomplished much in her home state, she says much more remains to be done in the area and nationwide. She hopes to implement a statewide test for lead-tainted dust in homes built before 1960 and require Medicaid to reimburse housing residents for the cost of replacing leaded windows and removing other health hazards.

She also wants to turn local lead-reduction projects into “holistic” programs that address in a single intervention a variety of health and environmental hazards—such as mold, toxins and poor indoor air quality.

The HUD funding is a big boost to that effort. The coalition’s Green and Healthy Homes Initiative will help ensure that Maryland homes are energy-efficient and protected from hazards, extreme weather and pests—steps that will help allow residents to stay in properties that might otherwise have to be vacated.

“All of these grants advance the actual creation of greener, healthier housing for children, and for seniors as well,” Norton says. “They will definitely have an immediate impact in terms of lowering exposure to lead hazards, allergens and hazards that can cause poisonings or injury.”

The grants and awards will also attract more funding, Norton hopes. But the greatest reward, she says, is helping children stay healthy. “No amount of money or recognition can match that feeling.”