1 in 7 Highland Park kids lead poisoned
This story has been updated to include a new statement from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
One in seven children in Highland Park had elevated levels of lead in their blood in 2016, a rate higher than any other city evaluated by the state, according to data released Tuesday by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Though elevated blood lead levels have declined statewide more than 42 percent since 1998, exposure continues to endanger children who live in Michigan’s older urban communities, according to the 2016 Data Report from the state’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
Elevated lead blood levels were found in 14 percent of children tested in Highland Park, a community of 11,000 residents. Highland Park is surrounded on all sides by Detroit, which had the second highest proportion of kids with elevated blood levels at 8.8 percent.
Both cities have high poverty levels and are filled with old homes with peeling lead paint, a major risk factor for lead poisoning. 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, lead levels are considered elevated in children 6 and younger who have 5 micrograms per deciliter in their blood. High blood lead levels can lead to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Flint, where hundreds of children were exposed to lead-tainted water after the city switched its water source in 2014, 2.4 percent of children tested had elevated blood lead levels in 2016.
The number of children tested for lead exposure increased 20 percent from 2015 to 2016 as the Flint water crisis raised awareness of the dangers of lead exposure. More kids were tested in Detroit than anywhere in the state, more than 40 percent of all children under age 6.
Highland Park and Detroit were trailed by Adrian and Jackson — which each had elevated levels in 8.4 percent of its kids — and then Grand Rapids and Hamtramck at 8.1 percent.
Statewide, the percentage of children testing positive for lead increased from 3.4 percent in 2015 to 3.6 percent in 2016. The report confirmed the state’s preliminary finding that this marked the state’s first increase, according to records dating back to 1998.
Despite the bump, Tom Largo, manager of the Environmental Health Surveillance Section at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, argues this is an aberration and the decline will continue.
“We do feel like things are getting better,” Largo said Tuesday. “Definitely the trend has been going down. Pretty clearly, we can say that things have been leveling off here.”
The number of Michigan’s kids tested for lead increased 20 percent in 2016, when 157,892 children younger than 6 years of age had a blood lead test. That represents 23 percent of the state’s children under 6.
The state health department’s data show children are being exposed to elevated lead levels in counties from Manistee to Hillsdale and St. Clair.
Jackson, St. Joseph and Calhoun counties had Michigan’s highest percentages of children with elevated lead blood levels at 7.6 percent, 6.4 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively.
When excluding Detroit, Wayne County’s proportion was 2.1 percent. Oakland County had 1.2 percent of tested children with elevated levels, while Macomb County had 0.8 percent.
Though no level of lead exposure is considered safe, Health and Human Services epidemiologist Roseann Miller said the majority of children with elevated blood lead levels in Detroit and Highland Park “are not so high that we’re concerned about their health.”
“Really, children don’t become symptomatic until you have blood lead levels around 20, 40 (micrograms per deciliter) and above,” Miller said. “In fact, we don’t consider chelation (therapy to remove lead from blood) until they get a blood lead level of 45, unless they show symptoms.”
A Health and Human Services spokesman said Wednesday that Miller's comment does not reflect the department’s position on elevated blood-lead levels in children.
The department "is concerned about the health of any child whose blood-lead level is elevated. When a child’s blood-lead level is measured at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, remediation and case management begins," Bob Wheaton said in an email.
About 12 children annually require chelation therapy in Michigan, state health officials said. Historically, nearly all of those children live in Detroit.
But the state’s report said, “No safe blood lead level has been identified.”
Health advocates such as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who helped uncover the elevated blood lead levels in Flint kids, have cautioned that any level of lead exposure is dangerous to children and could cause behavior problems, learning delays and other developmental problems.
The federal government has invested millions of dollars to provide Flint families with mental health, special education and nutritional assistance to ward off the long-term effects of exposure.
What state recommends
According to state guidelines, an environmental history should be taken for children with any amount over 5 micrograms per deciliter, and they should be checked for iron deficiency and get dietary counseling related to calcium and iron.
At 14 micrograms per deciliter, doctors should consider an abdominal X-ray to check for lead. And at 45 micrograms or above, doctors should consult with poison control, and consider hospitalization and chelation therapy.
Of 1,390 Detroit children 6 and younger who had elevated blood lead levels, 138 had levels higher than 15 micrograms per deciliter, according to the report. Similar data was not available for Highland Park.
Reducing lead exposure is a top health priority in Detroit, said Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the city’s Health Department director.
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 that was first reported 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.
“The primary reason for elevated blood lead levels in Detroit is peeling paint inside older homes where people live,” Khaldun said Tuesday.
The Detroit Health Department changed its approach this year to lead poisoning prevention, working with the ClearCorps environmental group and Wayne State University.
Detroit City Council approved 1.25 million for the city’s Health Department to go into the homes of pregnant women and children in the five city ZIP codes where lead poisoning is highest to do lead poisoning prevention education, test children for lead and test their homes for the presence of lead hazards.
The Health Department also recently received grants from the state to incorporate lead testing and education into Head Start preschool programs and to test pregnant women for lead.
“We also launched a new Interagency Lead Poisoning Prevention Task Force between city agencies, which will help us better coordinate lead prevention efforts across departments,” Khaldun said. “We are confident that these proactive, collaborative approaches will help increase awareness, and decrease incidence of lead poisoning in Detroit’s pregnant women and children.”