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On the job with lead risk assessor Kelly Koch

“We love finding lead.”

Kelly Koch is talking about the heavy metal, Pb on the periodic table, an element used for thousands of years before people learned it was toxic.

For the record, Koch doesn’t love lead itself. She loves playing a key role in getting rid of it.

Koch is one of six lead risk assessors employed by Hennepin County. Every week, they head out in teams of three--entering Twin Cities homes, testing for the dangerous element and inadvertently entertaining the children they encounter.

“Our machines have lights, and they beep, so it’s kind of entertaining for kids to have us there,” said Koch. “We’re there just to see where the lead is. I don’t care about anything else that I see … if I find lead, that means I can use our grant funds to address the lead hazards.”


The grants are generous, up to $15,000 for removal of lead from homes or apartments built before 1978. Typically, the work includes new energy-efficient windows, since lead was commonly used in paint until it was banned 46 years ago.


Every time old, lead-painted windows are raised and lowered, lead dust is released. That creates an especially troubling hazard for children learning to walk, who use window sills to pull themselves up. “Little kids, you’ve seen them, they put all kinds of things in their mouth,” said Koch. “If they’re putting their hands in their mouth, they’re breathing in or ingesting that fine lead dust.”


Because lead exposure can damage children’s brains, Koch and her fellow assessors prioritize homes where children under the age of 6 live or regularly visit. “Getting in before things happen is our main goal,” explained Koch.


The lead assessors’ visit takes around two hours, during which the team hunts for lead in all parts of the residence--every window, piece of trim, and wall. They even take soil samples to determine if there’s lead in a family’s yard.


Koch and her colleagues use a “fancy machine called XRF” to test for lead-based paints in the home. The tool can read through every layer of a painted surface and indicate if there’s any lead present. In an average visit, assessors capture between 200 and 300 lead test readings.


The testing visit lasts around two hours. The entire process from initial screening to finished work takes between six months and a year. During that time, Koch or one of the other lead assessors from the first visit will serve as a case manager guiding the applicant through the lead-removal journey.


“I’ll write up a report that goes through all the lead hazards that we found, and I’ll educate you about where that is, what that is, and then we’ll work together to write up a scope of work,” said Koch. The scope of work document is sent to trusted members of the county’s contractor pool, and the contractor with the lowest bid gets the job. 


During the time between lead detection and removal, Koch advises clients to avoid using lead-painted windows and doors, if possible. She also urges homeowners and renters to regularly wipe lead-painted surfaces to remove dust and reduce risk to children.


When it’s time for lead removal, families must vacate their homes for around four days. “We know it’s a lot to ask,” said Koch. “Fortunately, there are funds available, so you can stay in a hotel. I always encourage them to get a hotel with a pool, because kids like the pool!”


A family of four who qualifies for the program receives a per diem of $175 to be spent on food, lodging, and incidentals. Families with more people get a proportionally larger per diem.


Koch encourages home daycare providers and renters to sign up for the lead removal program. “We want to get into those places, because lots of kids going through there,” said Koch. “Rentals do count as long as the landlord signs off and is willing to work with us.”


The average cost of lead removal, a little over $11,000 falls under the $15,000 grant limit. “If, by chance, the cost runs over the  $15,000 grant, we have a repayment loan that has zero percent interest and zero fees,” explained Koch. “That’s something you’re never gonna find at any bank.”


There are income eligibility requirements for the Hennepin County program. For example, a family of four with an annual income of $94,000 or less would qualify for the program. Bigger families would be able to have an even greater income. For more information on the program and to see whether you would qualify, call 612-543-4182 or go to


If you regularly care for young children in your home, whether they’re your own or someone else’s, Koch encourages you to sign up for the program--and soon. The longer children are exposed to lead, the more likely they will be harmed. Koch said, “We’re trying to get in before these little kids have elevated lead levels.”



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