It’s easy to assume there’s widespread awareness about St. Joseph County’s lead poisoning problem.

After all, the news several years ago that nearly a third of children under age 7 in one South Bend neighborhood had unsafe blood-lead levels was the subject of headlines and discussions among community activists and government officials.

So, you might figure that this well-documented problem — driven primarily by lead-based paint in older homes — is common knowledge.

But you would be wrong in that assumption. A recent Tribune story pointed to the low number of children the county tested for lead in their blood — and a free testing event and other efforts planned by officials to raise awareness. Early testing is key because of the irreversible damage lead can do to young children in particular. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that includes damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems and speech and hearing problems.

In addition, lead poisoning in pregnant women can increase the chances of a miscarriage, premature birth, a stillbirth, a child with a birth defect and other health problems, the CDC reported.

After nearly 5,300 tests of children younger than age 7 were collected in 2019, the figure fell below 4,000 during the first two years of the pandemic. That figure didn’t rebound as officials expected as people began moving about more, and this year’s numbers have stalled.

As County Health Officer Dr. Diana Purushotham put it, “We need to do more work to increase the overall amount of testing.”

The lead issue is tied to poverty. A 2016 Tribune story noted that the homes in the area with unsafe blood-lead levels —known as Census Tract 6 — are old and haven’t been renovated, with many in poor shape. Owners of leased homes often live outside the region and aren’t willing to invest in renovations.

There’s also a racial component: The risk of lead poisoning falls disproportionately on minority children. A Harvard study drawing on data of more than 1 million blood tests administered to Chicago children from 1995-2013 found “extraordinarily high rates of lead toxicity” in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The authors concluded, “Lead toxicity is a source of ecological inequity by race and a pathway through which racial inequality literally gets into the body.”

Another study, published this year in Pediatrics, highlights the role of racially segregated neighborhoods. The study of blood lead tests of 320,000 children younger than 7 in North Carolina found that those living in predominantly Black neighborhoods had higher blood levels of lead than those living in more integrated areas.

Just two years ago, in a comment about the low number of applicants for a lead abatement program, we noted the challenge of reaching the people most at risk.

A home in South Bend is riddled with chipped paint. Officials are trying to find ways to combat the city’s problem with lead-tainted homes. Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES

In his role as a community health worker who focuses on lead, Jonathan Carmona tackles this challenge for the county Health Department. Among his duties, he makes home visits, does testing events at daycares and schools, and educates residents about lead poisoning, a problem many parents aren’t aware of.

“It’s not that they don’t care — it’s that they’re not really educated about it,” he explains. “When we go for home visits and tell parents ‘your kids have high lead levels, and you can do these things.’ And they’re like ‘Oh, oh my god.’ They didn’t know this.”

That education includes information about wiping dust from window sills, making sure kids wash their hands regularly and listing the foods high in calcium, Vitamin C and iron, that could help lower lead levels.

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Carmona, the county Health Department worker, says the families he works with are receptive to the information he provides. That may be due in no small part to what he calls the “really diverse” community health workers, with six, including Carmona, who speak Spanish.

“I think that’s a good thing about it. … People that look like you, you tend to be more comfortable, you know, talking to them or getting information. And of course the language barrier also. If you don’t have someone to speak my language, it’s not going to be easy for me to understand.”

There’s nothing easy about reaching the public — particularly the people most affected by a given issue. The concepts of “raising awareness or “providing education” are thrown around but rarely explained.

Two years ago, a Tribune editorial ended with a plea for officials to put “new focus and energy on how to reach the people most at risk.” The consequences of failing to do so couldn’t be higher, for the children whose cognitive development could be affected, and for the community where they live.

We don’t know exactly how to go about reaching the families most affected. But outreach efforts that include people who look like the community they’re serving sounds like a solid strategy to us.

Editorials represent the opinion of the Tribune Editorial Board. Its members are Audience Engagement Editor Alesia I. Redding, Enterprise Editor Cory Havens and Executive Editor Ismail Turay Jr.