Board: Test all Michigan kids for lead poisoning

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan should require all children to be tested for lead poisoning, expand home testing requirements and create a statewide database of structures with dangerous lead levels, according to a state panel created after the Flint water contamination crisis.

A report released Thursday by the Child Lead Poisoning Elimination Board includes more than 100 recommendations to create what Lt. Gov. Brian Calley called a “road map” for Michigan to eliminate exposure to a neurotoxin linked to hurting brain functions and other life-long health consequences.

“It’s not a goal to reduce lead poisoning; it’s a goal to eliminate lead exposure,” Calley said during a Lansing press conference. “The cost of not doing that is simply too high.”

The board recommendations could require significant state spending, Calley acknowledged, telling reporters he will discuss potential policy changes and funding requests with state legislators in coming months.

The 37-page report calls for universal blood lead testing of children at the ages of 9-12 months and again at 24-26 months. The requirement could be implemented “for a period of years” but gradually transition to focus on only high-risk areas.

Lapsed federal rules required similar testing requirements, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha said, but rates have fallen in recent years. A universal testing program would require health care providers to test children during regular check-ups or other primary care visits.

Lead poisoning does not produce visible symptoms but can affect children for their entire lives, making childhood screenings especially important, said Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center who first reported elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint kids.

Universal testing is “not going to pick up all exposure, because lead has a short detection window in your blood, but it will help us identify who is exposed and thus being able to target elimination efforts,” she said.

While the Flint water crisis highlighted the dangers of lead exposure and aging underground infrastructure, the most common source of lead contamination is lead paint in old houses, lead dust and lead in soil.

Exposure rates have declined in recent years, but experts say any exposure is dangerous. Lead poisoning remains more common among children in low-income communities and communities of color.

The board, appointed in May by Gov. Rick Snyder, is recommending the state conduct or require lead inspection and risk assessments in high-risk rental housing and mandatory inspections when a home that was built before 1978 is sold.

The report recommends increased funding for lead inspections in high-lead neighborhoods where children or pregnant mothers are living. Lead exposure tends to affect a greater rate of children in low-income and minority communities.

More broadly, the board is calling for development of a uniform, statewide database to track childhood lead screenings, treatments, home inspections and abatement efforts. While various databases exist, the information is fragmented and does not provide a clear picture for policy makers and residents.

“We have a database of kids, but we don’t have one for homes,” said Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University. “An inventory of these houses has to gradually be built so we can protect children from harm.”

A new work group should be formed to explore whether or how the state should make public the addresses of homes where lead poisoned children or hazards were identified, according to the board.

“Many homes have poisoned multiple children, but the owners have faced no consequences, and the homes are still being offered for sale or rent,” the report said.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid this week approved Michigan’s request to use $24 million this year to pay for lead abatement services, and up to the same amount in each of the next four years.

The move will make “an enormous difference,” Calley said, but “I also expect it will take additional resources from other sources, including the state.”

While the recommendations may carry a significant price tag, eliminating lead exposure could ultimately save the state, said to Rebecca Meuninck, deputy director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.

Childhood lead exposure is associated with lowered IQ levels and higher rates of juvenile delinquency, aggression and bullying, she said.

The Ecology Center estimates lead exposure costs the state $270 million a year, including $112 million associated with lost income tax collections, judicial costs and special education programs.

“Ending childhood lead poisoning is both a critical public health investment but also a sound economic investment for our state,” Meuninck said.