State orders nonprofit to stop Metro Detroit lead paint work after child gets sick

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News
Inspectors use a sensor that checks for lead in paint, through multiple layers, around windows and doors.

State health officials are re-examining work done by a Detroit nonprofit over the last 11 years to clear nearly 600 homes of lead paint hazards after a child recently got sick in a treated home.

The state issued a stop work order to CLEARCorps/Detroit in early December after investigators found there still were lead hazards in a treated Detroit home after the child living there tested positive for high blood lead levels, a state official said. 

"There was an investigation to find where the exposure was and it led back to the house," said Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "We are actively reviewing the homes that they did." 

The nonprofit has had a state contract through the Lead Safe Homes Program to clear lead hazards in Metro Detroit since 2007, working on about 600 homes in that time. Investigators found lead hazards in five other homes so far as a part of the review, Sutfin said.

Sutfin said the state doesn't know how many of the 600 homes it will physically review, but has sent letters to all. The local health departments also have reached out to occupants. 

Of the 600 homes, about 550 are in Detroit and the rest are in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

In a written statement, CLEARCorps executive director Mary Sue Schottenfels said they take the state’s "concerns with the utmost seriousness."

"We greatly value our partnership with the State of Michigan and look forward to continuing to work together to help Detroit’s children," Schottenfels said. "CLEARCorps Detroit welcomes the state’s due diligence and joins in their effort to protect children."  

Schottenfels wouldn't comment directly on what happened in the case in which the child later got sick in one of the homes they had worked in. But she said they made "a special effort to flag this case and ask for (the state's) involvement/advice."

It's not clear what remaining lead hazards were found in the homes, Sutfin said.

And it's not clear how elevated the sick child's blood lead levels were. Sutfin said she didn't have that information and that the Detroit Health Department was working with the family. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the department's Director and Health Officer, wouldn't comment to protect the child's privacy. 

Lead paint commonly used in homes before 1978, ingested from chips or dust, is considered the top culprit for lead poisoning in children. High blood lead levels can have severe and lasting effects, leading to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties.

The state refers homes to CLEARCorps that need work done, which then hires and oversees state-approved contractors, as well as performs a clearance at the end of each project. That work can include anything from entirely removing the lead paint hazard from the home to securely covering it or a combination. 

RichardGlesser, a licensed lead risk assessor in Ohio who is a member of the Cleveland Lead Safe Network, said it's not unheard of to have a lead hazard return in a home when there were "interim controls," such as painting over the hazard, which are used to contain the lead rather than remove it entirely. 

Removing lead from older homes can be costly, starting at $15,000 and higher for large properties, he said.

The state couldn't immediately say how much it had paid the group for the work since 2007. The Detroit Health Department is reaching out to the families in the Detroit homes who were serviced.

"We are providing education and offering lead tests for the children and homes, as well as nurse case management," Khaldun wrote in an email.  

Sutfin said she's not aware of any more children who have tested with high blood lead levels in the treated homes.

Detroit neighborhoods have some of the highest percentages of child lead poisoning in Michigan, including 48206, an area west of the John C. Lodge freeway and north of West Grand Boulevard. There 19.2 percent of children 6 and younger had elevated blood lead levels in 2017. Citywide, it's 7.4 percent, down from 8.8 percent in 2016.

State officials said they will pay for the work to be completed if lead hazards are found. Homeowners or renters whose properties have been treated by CLEAR/Corp Detroit can call the state's Healthy Homes Section hotline at 866-691-5323. 

The state "will ensure that work is performed by any and all contractors in accordance with applicable industry standards, rules and regulations," Sutfin wrote in an email.

"MDHHS is overseeing the work ClearCorp was handling/was in process in addition to any new referrals through the Healthy Homes Program. So, work is still being done."