High lead found in fewer Detroit children

Christine Ferretti and Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

The number of Detroit children under 6 with elevated levels of lead in their blood has dropped by more than half in the last six years.

But despite the dramatic decrease — outlined in a new lead report compiled by Detroit’s Health Department — officials say there’s more work to be done.

Children in Detroit remain four times more likely to have elevated blood lead levels than children in the rest of the state, according to the 15-page April 2016 report.

But since 2009, Detroit’s elevated blood lead level numbers have continued to decrease as a result of various efforts, the report says. Among them: the removal of blighted homes, lead abatement and continued education outreach by the Detroit Health Department’s Lead Team.

“The big challenge of lead in Detroit is old housing,” said Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the city’s executive director of public health. “Folks who live in older houses should make sure they are aware of the risks and are working with professional contractors who can decrease the exposure in a home and make sure we keep pushing that number down together.”

The level of elevated blood levels in children under age 6 went from 19 percent in 2009 to 9 percent in 2015, the report noted. Experts use a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels that are much higher than most children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The fact that the number of children who are testing high on elevated blood levels is going down is an important move in the right direction,” El-Sayed said. “We want to make sure that the number continues to decline with time.”

Mayor Mike Duggan’s office referred comment on the report to El-Sayed.

The Detroit report relies on lead blood level testing conducted on 2,167 children at physician offices in Detroit in 2015 and reported to the state.

The Detroit report further lists the 12 ZIP codes with the highest lead exposure likelihood in the city: 48202, 48203, 48204, 48206, 48207, 48208, 48211, 48212, 48213, 48214, 48215 and 48238. These high risk ZIP codes, it says, are the same areas where elevated blood lead levels are decreasing fastest.

Across the country, housing is the most common source of lead exposure, usually occurring in homes built prior to 1978 when lead-based paint was used. For Detroit, 93 percent of housing carries a high risk of lead poisoning, the report says.

Mary Sue Schottenfels, executive director of CLEARCorps/Detroit, said the drop is positive but echoed El-Sayed’s concern over lead in homes, a threat to children’s health.

“While there has been significant decrease in the lead levels in children in Detroit, there are still well over 2,000 children that are poisoned (by lead),” said Schottenfels, who represents the nonprofit that works to prevent lead poisoning in the city. “It’s still a major concern for the city and the children in our city.”

She applauded the city’s health department for its efforts to reduce children’s exposure to lead and is a partner in the effort.

“They’re trying very hard to make sense of the data and to do the right kind of targeting,” she said. “I’m working closely with them to make sure that happens.”

The city has demolished more than 8,000 homes since the spring of 2014. Officials have said that Detroit averages between 150 and 200 knockdowns per week.

The volume of demolitions prompted the city in 2014 to adopt new dust suppression strategies to minimize respiratory problems. Health officials have also said they were tracking elevated blood-lead levels in children and respiratory hospitalizations.

Lead and copper exposure can lead to health problems ranging from stomach pain to brain damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Detroit lead report notes the health department’s epidemiology team “rigorously stress-tested” the city’s lead numbers. They tested the findings against bias of a reduction in funding and the amount of testing as well as the selection of children tested for the studies.

The findings, it noted, suggest a true decline in elevated blood-lead levels rather than a decrease in lead testing or a change in the characteristics of the children who are being tested.

Although the levels have dropped, the city still has a lead poisoning rate of about 9 percent, which is more than twice the 2014 Michigan statewide average of 3.5 percent.

Several other cities have elevated blood lead levels in young kids, including Highland Park, Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, Jackson and Grand Rapids.

The Snyder administration recently proposed requiring Michigan water utilities to test annually for lead and copper in all schools, day care centers, nursing homes and government meeting facilities in response to Flint’s lead contamination crisis.

Snyder’s plan followed testing that revealed dangerously high lead levels in 15 Detroit Public Schools buildings, including one where a drinking fountain recorded lead with 1,500 parts per billion — 100 times the action level, although no amount of lead is considered safe.

City health officials have asked DPS for a full mitigation plan for water and cleanliness at the district, including a 90-day action plan.

The city formed a lead task force several months ago to make sure that city services are aligned and that the numbers continue to decline.