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Lead Poisoning Research Benefits Science, Community

Author: Arts and Letters

Jody Nicholson is known around South Bend as “the lead lady.”

A graduate student in developmental psychology at the University of Notre Dame, she is completing her dissertation on a project called “Get the Lead Out,” a Notre Dame Center for Children and Families community-based research project that aims to test the effectiveness of various interventions on 84 local families whose young children have subclinical lead exposure.

“Get the Lead Out,” funded by 2006 and 2008 Rodney F. Ganey Collaborative Community-Based Research Mini-Grants through Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, offers a prime example of how the Center for Children and Families research benefits both the scientific community and the community at large, according to director Julia Braungart-Rieker.

“The umbrella term is translational research,’” Braungart-Rieker explains. “Research findings are translated into real-world applications.”

Nicholson’s research targeted families whose young children have low levels of lead exposure. Low levels of exposure are not reportable, Nicholson notes, and the children, who are not at high risk, are not eligible for government intervention programs.

Still, even low levels of lead are associated with developmental difficulties in children.

The project was the result of collaboration between University departments and community partners, including St. Joseph County Head Start, the St. Joseph County Health Department and Women, Infants and Children ( WIC ).

Nicholson needed to recruit candidates for the study, and children entering Head Start needed to have their lead levels tested—a requirement for starting the program. That allowed her to organize lead testing through the Health Department and WIC , which also shared prenatal growth data on the children for the research.

Nicholson’s research focused on low-income families in South Bend, specifically recruiting Hispanic families because some cultural practices—home remedies and imported food products that contain lead, and lead-glazed pottery used for cooking—put children at higher risk.

The project compared three intervention strategies among four groups: A control group of families was given a brochure from the Environmental Protection Agency; the second group received cleaning kits—including vacuums—and instructions on how to clean around the house to reduce the level of lead dust in the child’s environment; a third group received a professional risk assessment that determined where lead was present in the house; and the fourth received a combination of all three.

Preliminary results suggest that as a result of the interventions, children’s blood lead levels were reduced, parental knowledge of lead risks and protective factors increased, and home cleaning frequency and quality increased. All the interventions proved effective, according to Nicholson.

Because low levels of lead exposure aren’t reported, through “Get the Lead Out,” parents became aware of their children’s exposure, and the potential risks.

“Just telling them the test results may be effective in getting parents to enact change,” Nicholson said.

Contact : Jody Nicholson,

Originally published by Carol C. Bradley at on July 17, 2009.