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Partnership to prevent lead poisoning in children gets NSF boost

Students test lead levels in the paint of a house in South Bend. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

With new funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame will co-create new tests and technologies alongside community health workers to detect lead levels in homes .

“The current system of discovering the dangers of lead in homes treats children as test instruments,” said Marya Liebermann, professor of analytical chemistry at Notre-Dame. “Following this model, we wait for a child’s blood to show elevated lead levels, and then that triggers city and county engagement.”

Lieberman is part of a team, which includes three other Notre Dame faculty members and numerous community health partners, that is working to redesign that system. And their bold new ideas just received a major NSF funding award. The centerpiece of the funding is a new app that will speed up access to resources and provide better data to health officials and policy makers.

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 came from 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 insight into the “gaps” that are preventing scientific progress in the study of lead poisoning from improving the health of local community members.

Kimberly Green Reeves, who leads Beacon Health System’s public outreach efforts, added that “there are barriers to access all the way from testing to treatment. After testing, we need to make sure that families have easy and equitable access to resources available from health care providers, governments, and health services. Green Reeves, who will serve as a key community partner on the project, said, “We are excited about the role technology can play in helping us communicate a clear message to the community in a timely manner.

Jay Brockman, who directs Notre Dame’s Center for Civic Innovation, stressed that the principle of solidarity will guide the team’s process to develop new technologies. “Real change requires listening,” Brockman said. “We need to understand what’s really happening in neighborhoods to understand the barriers and co-create solutions that people really trust and use.”

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

“We know lead poisoning occurs primarily in low-income and minority neighborhoods,” he said. “Lead poisoning compounds the problems these neighborhoods face by harming children’s development and adding further obstacles to their progress in life.”

Allison Zeithammer, director of communications for the City of South Bend, said the city is also pleased to be a key partner in the project. “As a municipal government, we see firsthand how the problem of lead poisoning can impact residents of South Bend,” she said. “But we also see how complex the problem is. So we understand this type of partnership that brings together health systems, health services and researchers who all want to create positive outcomes for residents.

For Marc FoxDeputy Health Officer of St. Joseph County, the project is a milestone in the community’s relationship with Notre Dame.

“Over the past five years, there has been renewed attention to lead risk in St. Joseph County, and Notre Dame’s lead innovation team has helped increase testing,” did he declare. “Now we can shift our focus upstream to ensure that every child born in St. Joseph County has a safe home to come home to. Notre Dame’s expertise in chemistry, innovation and data science will give us a clearer picture of the risks so we can prepare and follow up appropriately.

He added, “This is a powerful 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 healthcare professionals, visit Michiana Community Health Coalition or contact its organizers, Jessica Brookshire, Jen Lefever and Jill Penmonti.

Contact: Brett Beasley, writer and editorial program manager, Notre Dame Research, [email protected], 574-631-8183; @UNDResearch

Originally posted by Brett Beasley at research.nd.edu on October 18.

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