Detroit kids’ lead poisoning rates higher than Flint

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Detroit had Michigan’s highest proportion of children test positive for lead poisoning in 2016 — 8.8 percent of kids tested — including one ZIP code where 22 percent were found to have lead poisoning.

Data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services show children are being sickened by lead in counties from Manistee to Hillsdale and St. Clair, though the rates of lead poisoning in Flint continue to improve.

Just 1.8 percent tested positive for lead poisoning in Genesee County, where hundreds of Flint children were exposed to lead-tainted water after the city switched its water source in 2014.

INTERACTIVE MAP:Explore a map of lead testing results in Detroit by ZIP code

High blood lead levels can lead to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a common problem nationwide in cities that have large numbers of homes built before 1978, when lead-based paints were banned from use in housing.

Under federal guidelines, medical intervention is recommended for children 6 and younger who have blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Statewide, the percentage of children tested who were found to have elevated blood levels increased from 3.4 percent in 2015 to 3.6 percent last year. It was the state’s first increase, according to records dating back to 1998.

Jackson County had the highest rate of lead poisoning among counties in the state, with high blood lead levels in 7.6 percent of children tested. Calhoun and St. Joseph counties followed at 6.4 percent. In Wayne County, outside of Detroit, 2.1 percent of kids tested had elevated blood lead levels.

A 2016 Detroit Health Department study found a link between lead poisoning and housing demolitions in the city, where 93 percent of homes were built before 1978, according to city data, and first reported Tuesday by Bridge magazine. The risk was most significant for kids who live within 200 feet of a demolition, especially those that occur between May and September.

City tackles lead problems

Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the Detroit Health Department director, said reducing lead exposure is a top health priority in the city, where the lead poisoning rate increased from 7.5 percent in 2015. Detroit’s lead poisoning rate decreased by half between 2009 and 2015.

“Quite frankly, it’s really because of the old housing stocks that Detroit has,” Khaldun said. “Most kids who are getting exposed to lead ... are getting exposed through lead paint in their homes, and so we’ve really been trying to focus on primary prevention.”

Those homes also have lead service lines snaking beneath them. At a national water conference earlier this year in Flint, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown, calling it a “conservative” estimate, said Detroit has at least 125,000 lead service lines — probably more than the rest of the state combined. The city is exploring options but does not currently have a long-term replacement program in place.

Lead service lines beneath the city carry water into homes and businesses and are a potentially dangerous threat, but it could take decades to remove them at a cost of up to $500 million, according to some estimates.

Khaldun said the city already is waging a fierce battle against lead poisoning, with multiple programs aimed at cleaning up houses and educating the public. The lead poisoning rate dropped 50 percent in Detroit between 2009 and 2015. Khaldun noted that the Detroit City Council unanimously approved an ordinance on Oct. 31 that requires inspections of all rental properties.

“(Because of the ordinance) we will actually know ... what those levels of lead are in those homes, and we are working with those landlords and those owners so that they are doing something about the lead in those homes,” Khaldun said.

Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State and project coordinator of the Detroit/Wayne County Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, said the ordinance to force landlords to get their properties inspected — which includes lead paint inspection — will help prevent poisonings.

Under current law, housing units are supposed to be registered and have passed city inspections by obtaining a certificate of compliance before they can be rented out. But city officials admit they have let the vast majority of landlords ignore the rules for more than a decade, The News reported last month.

If landlords refuse to follow the rules, renters will be able to escrow rent after a series of deadlines, under regulations passed late last month. Mayor Mike Duggan has added staff and contractors to do rental inspections.

Landlords will need to get an initial $450-$700 lead inspection and then an annual $250 risk assessment, where a trained inspector looks for problems like peeling paint.

Khaldun said the city is launching a lead exposure prevention program this month in partnership with the Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies and ClearCorps Detroit, a nonprofit lead mitigation group.

“They’re already going into the homes and showing families how to appropriately clean their homes so that their children are not at risk, why we thought ‘Why don’t we move demolition information into those home visits,’ ” Khaldun said.

Abdul El-Sayed., the former city health department director now running for governor, said he led the study on lead exposure and housing demolitions and a task force that compiled recommendations and made sure the report was made public.

The report was posted online, and El-Sayed said he hopes recent media scrutiny will compel more urgent action. He said he’s disappointed that not all of the Task Force’s 18 recommendation have been implemented.

“My hope is they they ... will get this done immediately, because kids deserve the best and they deserve that when the city does something like demolish a home — which I think is done in part for public health purposes, that it is done with public health in mind and that it as safe as it possibly can be,” El-Sayed said.

Focus beyond Flint

While Flint has been a focus of lead mitigation efforts by the state Department of Health and Human Services, problems of lead poisoning in other parts of the state have not been forgotten, spokeswoman Angela Minicuci said Tuesday.

“Flint was a man-made crisis, so the response was not necessarily all due to the lead levels — it was due to the fact that the water switch corroded the water,” Minicuci said, when asked about the hundreds of millions of state, federal and charitable dollars that have been spent to replace lead service lines, distribute bottled water and mitigate the effects of lead poisoning in that community.

“You can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison” between Flint and other cities in the state, she said.

Minicuci said that because of the water switch in Flint, “there was this impact on health, but it was a man-made crisis versus Kent County or the Detroit areas of the state (where there are) historic issues of lead exposure in the environment as a whole — it could be in paint, it could be in soil, it could be related to the industry (or other sources).”

Minicuci said some of the same programs used to mitigate lead exposure in Flint – such as the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program that provides case management and behavior and health services for children with high blood lead levels — are available to families across the state. But much of the money Flint received can only be used in Flint.

“We are funded to spend specific dollars in specific places with a lot of these programs,” Minicuci said. “Resources we have received from the state or the federal level were specifically designed for reaching Flint as a result of the crisis, so we can’t use those funds otherwise.”

Tina Reynolds, health policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council, said MDHHS has done a good job of leveraging the Flint windfall in ways that can benefit other communities. For example, some of the money has been used to train lead mitigation contractors, specialists who are needed across the state.

“(The state is) creatively pushing dollars to education and outreach,” Reynolds said. “I think we’re doing the best we can with the largess that we have received.”

Minicuci said it’s up to the state Legislature to decide how to prioritize Michigan lead mitigation resources going forward.

“We’re working in Detroit. We’re working in Kent County. We’re working in other areas of the state with elevated lead levels,” Minicuci said. “They have remained high focus communities for quite some time, but we’ve just in the last year or so given Flint’s lead levels our priority response.”

Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.