Highland Park kids’ lead poisoning on decline

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Last week’s report showing one in seven Highland Park kids who were tested had lead poisoning in 2016 represented an improvement over previous years, according to historic data that illustrates the legacy of lead exposure in Michigan’s oldest cities.

Nearly 38 percent of Highland Park children who had their blood tested had elevated blood lead levels in 2008, compared with 14 percent two years ago, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services records.

Nearly 38 percent of Highland Park children who had their blood tested had elevated blood lead levels in 2008, compared with 14 percent two years ago, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services records.

High blood lead levels can lead to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And research has shown that the effects of lead poisoning can be passed down for generations.

Though elevated blood lead levels have declined more than 42 percent statewide 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.

Highland Park had the highest percentage of kids with elevated blood lead levels every year from 2008 through 2016 when compared with Detroit, Adrian, Flint, Grand Rapids, Hamtramck, Jackson, Lansing and Muskegon. In Detroit, the percentage declined from 20.8 in 2008 to 8.8 percent in 2016.

Under federal guidelines, lead levels are considered elevated in children 6 and younger who have 5 micrograms per deciliter in their blood. 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.

It will likely take decades and millions of dollars to get rid of the lead that’s endangering kids in Highland Park, Detroit and the region’s urban areas, where many of the homes were built prior to 1978 when lead was banned from use in house paint. Homes built during that era also are likely to be connected to the local water system by lead service lines, including 125,000 such homes in Detroit, according to an estimate by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Wayne County in April was awarded a $2.9 million grant for lead abatement from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the money won’t go very far. The grant is for all of Wayne County, excluding Detroit.

To qualify for a grant through the Lead Safe Wayne County program, a child under 6 or a pregnant woman must reside in the home, and it must have been built before 1978, said Carol Austerberry, acting health officer for the Wayne County Health Department. There is also an income requirement.

“It’s very expensive (to remove lead from homes) because you have to do everything so carefully, from how you vet people to making sure everything is done correctly,” said Mary Sue Schottenfels, executive director of CLEARCorps Detroit, an environmental children’s health program that focuses on lead poisoning prevention and abatement.

CLEARCorps has contracts with the state of Michigan to do lead abatement in Detroit, where research has shown that housing demolitions have contributed to elevated blood lead levels in children. Her company previously also did state-funded lead abatement in Highland Park. But since the county received the federal HUD grant in April, the state no longer funds Highland Park lead abatement, Schottenfels said.

“Those houses in Highland Park are going to take a lot of money per house,” Schottenfels said, noting that lead abatement can cost $5,000 to $60,000 per home. She estimates the cost for an average Highland Park home at about $30,000.

“You have to do everything in a very safe manner, and it does jack up the cost. But many kids will cycle through those houses so you get a good bang for your buck.”

With hundreds of pre-1978 homes in his city, Highland Park Mayor Herbert Yopp is concerned that the funding will fall short. He says he spoke last week with State Rep. LaTanya Garrett, D-Detroit, to ask if the state could provide additional funding for lead abatement in the 11,000-resident community surrounded by Detroit.

“I’d like to have some direct funding for Highland Park,” Yopp said. “We are certainly concerned. We know some little kids even eat that stuff, and it is harmful.

“If their basing it on pre-1978 homes than the state needs to give us some money, because we’re a historic city.”