The latest reports that children in Detroit have the highest levels of lead in their bodies than anywhere else in the state should make everyone nervous and perturbed. And the city’s own report points to the ongoing home demolition program as a culprit in this public health fiasco.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “One common way children can be exposed to lead are chips and particles of old lead paint. Children can be directly exposed to lead from paint if they swallow paint chips. But exposure is more common from swallowing house dust or soil contaminated by leaded paint.”
With such high levels of lead exposure among its youth, Detroit is obviously contaminating its future and undermining its socio-economic potential. In fact, any city that cannot maintain a healthy environment for its children to grow in is one that will be beset with heavy-duty problems for generations to come.
A case in point? Baltimore and Freddie Gray.
Gray was the 25-year-old African-American man who died in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department in 2015. His death sparked a nationwide outcry against police treatment of blacks and set Baltimore on fire.
Gray and his family lived in a rented house that had lead paint. The family alleges that paint in the house affected the young man’s cognitive development and he started suffering from brain damage early in life. According to a lawsuit filed by Gray’s family against the property owner, from 1992 to 1996 alone, he was tested six times and found to have between 11 mg/dL and 19mg/dL of lead in his body.
The CDC states that the federal threshold is 5 micrograms “based on the population of children ages 1-5 years who are in the highest 2.5 percent of children when tested for lead in their blood.”
Gray and his family have been trapped in the clutches of poverty with all of the associated devastating consequences, and as a result, like many black families in urban areas, they were forced to live in homes that no child should be raised in. Period.
The question remains whether the impact lead-paint had on his life contributed to the circumstances that led to Gray’s consequential encounter with law enforcement and ultimately to his untimely death.
There are children in Detroit who are going through the same or similar conditions that underpinned the short life span of Freddie Gray.
With the warnings raised by these recent reports, the administration of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan needs to move with deliberate speed to tackle this problem. We cannot afford to gamble with the lives and future of precious Detroit’s children.
And officials will have to do more than just releasing statements when such reports force public debate about quality of life in the city.
Sylvia Hood Washington, a nationally renowned Chicago-based expert on environmental health disparities, says Detroit officials need to show concrete examples of how the city is attacking the problem it now faces.
“Remove contaminated lead sources, educate the impacted communities and school systems/daycare centers about the need to remediate their infrastructures and to test soil where children play,” Washington said.
In doing so, she said, it must be clearly understood that race and economics are at the center of such a health crisis.
“It is the poor, minority and immigrant families who are living in these areas and are not in the position overall to retrofit and remediate the contamination found in their homes, schools, churches, playgrounds and parks,” Washington said.
Given its history and impact in communities across the nation, lead poisoning is a matter of life and death.
How the Duggan administration approaches the challenge in eliminating this health hazard will determine how serious it takes the threat lead presents to this city’s future.
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