Brendan O'Shaughnessy | October 1, 2018
In early 2017, Notre Dame librarian Matthew Sisk offered his expertise in digital mapping to help a group of health and science professors tackling a public health problem: toxic lead poisoning local children.
A news report had found that children in the Near Northwest Neighborhood of South Bend had the state’s highest levels of lead in their blood. Sisk signed on to further refine the mapping and analysis of the state’s lead test data.
What he learned in just a few weeks prompted him to get his 1-year-old daughter, Laurie, tested for lead. Her results were below the state threshold for action, but still alarming for any first-time parent. Elevated lead levels can lead to serious cognitive, developmental and behavioral problems in children, ranging from hyperactivity to lower IQ.
“I was very committed to the project from the beginning, but suddenly it was personal,” Sisk said. “There’s no safe level of lead, so it’s a little scary.”
Sisk’s first reaction was “judicial panic” that included reading everything he could about lead toxicity and hastily repainting the walls in his 1875 home. He reached out to the county health department, then waited weeks for a home lead test and months for the report results.
“We realized that this was a weak point where we could help,” Sisk said. “We could develop a home test and better turnaround that can really help the panicked parent.”
The “we” Sisk refers to is the Notre Dame Lead Innovation Team, a multidisciplinary group that includes himself and four other Notre Dame professors, plus help from dozens of graduate and undergraduate students, who are developing a systematic infrastructure to address the county’s lead problem. The team’s work in the last two years has already prompted greater public awareness of the issue and accumulated six grants to fund research and solutions.
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