Detroit to halt some demolitions over lead concerns

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city will halt demolitions this summer in five ZIP codes that have the highest rates of children testing positive for lead poisoning after a city report last year suggested a link between nearby demolitions and high lead levels.

Demolition crews normally are busy May through September, but in these five ZIP codes, they will hold off razing homes until Oct. 1 because of the potential effect the release of lead-containing dust could have on young children living nearby, city officials said.

The ZIP codes are 48206, 48214, 48202, 48204 and 48213. The percentages of kids testing positive for lead poisoning in those areas range from 22.3 percent in 48206 to 13.6 percent in 48213, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“Even one lead poisoned child is one too many,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, director of the Detroit Health Department, told The Detroit News. “We have to try something new. If there is a potential association, let’s not do it at all.”

Citywide, the percentage of kids testing positive rose from 7.5 percent in 2015 to 8.8 percent in 2016, the latest data available. The city has a higher rate of children who test positive for lead poisoning than any Michigan county. Over the last two decades, the number of kids lead poisoned has dropped 88 percent, health officials said.

Demolitions will resume in those ZIP codes in October, and the overall number of demolitions completed will be the same as planned, said Arthur Jemison, the city’s Director of Housing & Revitalization. Homes that are at risk of immediate collapse will still be taken down. Two of the ZIP codes are in the center of the city and two others are on the east side.

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.

In those top five ZIP codes, 555 kids six years old and younger were lead poisoned in 2016. Citywide, it was 2,262 in the city’s 31 ZIP codes.

Under federal guidelines, medical intervention is recommended for children 6 and younger who have blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter. Between 2014 and 2016, 618 Detroit kids scored double that level or more.

The halt on demolitions is part of several other city efforts announced Tuesday aimed at reducing lead poisonings in the city by targeting families for help before children become sick. The efforts are funded by $1.25 million approved by the Detroit City Council this month. It includes door-to-door outreach to find families with young children to educate and test them for lead poisoning in the hardest hit ZIP codes.

Also with that funding, Detroit plans to hire an outside researcher to study the demolition connection identified by Detroit health department researchers. City officials said the report raised questions and they want to further study the effect of demolitions and lead levels.

The health department researchers found that kids most at risk for high lead levels lived within 200 feet of the demolitions during May through September.

“Additional measures are warranted to reduce or mitigate the potential child lead exposures in the current demolition process,” the report reads.

Researchers found that living within 400 feet of a demolition increased the odds of lead elevation by 20 percent, and odds increased by 38 percent if there were two or more demolitions nearby.

“We also examined whether the relationship between exposure to demolitions and (elevated blood lead level) differs in the summer, when children are home from school and likely to play outside,” they said.

Demolitions between October and April didn’t have the same effect, health department researchers found.

Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State, said he supports the halt on demolitions in the hardest hit ZIP codes.

“This is one less risk for kids,” said Thompson, also the project coordinator of the Detroit/Wayne County Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. “It doesn’t take much lead to poison a kid at all.

“The literature indicates a higher risk in general and from demolitions in the summer months.”

The city also is requiring future contracts with demolitions companies include new steps to reduce the release of lead dust. That includes crews adding a second hose to their process of wetting a home during demolition to reduce dust in the air.

Other steps including placing coverings on the windows of neighboring homes if they are open, contacting residents via text messaging warning of the upcoming demolitions, adding more door hangers on nearby homes that a demolition will be occurring soon, offering cleaning kits to residents and encouraging families with young kids to go inside or leave the area during the demolition, Khaldun said.

The city just added these requirements to demolitions contracts and would take effect this spring.

Detroit mom Diamond Grant, who lives in an apartment at the border of the 48206 zip code, said she's happy the city is taking action to prevent the risk of lead poisoning. However, Grant said she does not want the city to wait any longer than October to resume demolition. Abandoned homes are also a threat to children, she said.

"If you have an abandoned place and say for instance (kids) are playing or walking by ... we have sex trafficking and kidnapping (risks)," said Grant, who has a son in kindergarten at George Crockett Academy. "I would like for them to be gone as soon as possible."

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 in 2016. It was the state’s first increase, according to records dating back to 1998.

Mayor Mike Duggan announced in his State of the City address this month that he would recalibrate the size and scope of the demolition program, which initially sought to demolish 40,000 houses over five years.

The city has taken down 14,000 structures under the federally funded program, but while doing so, the effort has under come scrutiny amid concerns over bidding practices and soaring costs.

By the end of 2019, Duggan wants 8,000 more abandoned houses demolished, 2,000 houses sold by the city’s Land Bank, 1,000 homes renovated by owners and 11,000 others to be boarded up.

Staff writers Nicquel Terry and Karen Bouffard contributed to this report.