Report touts policies to prevent child lead exposure

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Removing lead drinking water service lines from homes in 2018 would protect more than 350,000 children and yield $2.7 billion in future benefits, according to a new report on exposure of the chemical in youths.

Further, removing lead paint from older homes of low-income families also would protect more than 311,000 children and provide $3.5 billion in “future benefits” — defined as lifetime earnings and economic gains from tax revenues. Future benefits also factor in increased workforce productivity associated with better long-term health.

The findings are from the report “10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure” released Wednesday by the Health Impact Project — a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A team of 40 experts conducted a cost-benefit analysis of policies intended to prevent lead exposure. The report estimates that about 1.8 million children have a history of lead exposure.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative who’s credited with uncovering the Flint water crisis, served on the advisory committee for the report.

“What was happening in Flint for 18 months really threatened the tomorrows of an entire generation of children,” she said.

Addressing the issue is crucial, because lead poisoning is preventable, said Allan Coukell, Pew Charitable Trusts senior director of health programs.

“As recent events in Flint and other communities remind us, still way too many kids are exposed to unacceptable levels of lead,” Coukell said. “It’s an avoidable health risk, and it’s one that’s unequally distributed across the population.”

Hanna-Attisha released a study in 2015 that found elevated blood lead levels among Flint children.

“There should be no other child anywhere else that is exposed to lead from any source,” she said. “It’s time our policies really caught up with the science. We have learned so much about lead. We know that there is no safe level of exposure, and the science has also taught us the means and economics to eliminate lead exposure.”

Flint’s water became contaminated with lead after state-appointed emergency managers switched the city’s water source in April 2014 from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The water was not treated with anti-corrosion chemicals to prevent lead from leaching into the water.

While the focus has been on Flint, lead exposure is a nationwide public health issue, said Rebecca Morley, Health Impact Project director.

Lead poisoning can cause developmental delays and learning difficulties for children, as well as irritability, fatigue, hearing loss and seizures. The effects on brain development make “children more likely to struggle in school, get in trouble with the law and earn less throughout their lives,” Mallya said.

According to 2014 census data, about 27 percent of Flint’s 99,000 residents were age 17 or younger. About 3,000 were 5 years old or younger — the age group most vulnerable to long-term damage from lead exposure.

Recommendations in the report to address lead poisoning include:

■Replacing lead service lines in homes, schools and day cares built before 1986, when the Environmental Protection Agency banned their use

■Removing lead paint hazards from low-income housing built before 1960

■Ensuring that contractors comply with the EPA’s rule that requires lead-safe renovation, repair and painting practices, a low-cost measure. The study estimates this would protect about 211,000 children born in 2018 and provide future benefits of $4.5 billion.

■Curtailing discharges of lead into the environment, such as aviation gas and lead smelting and battery recycling facilities

■Cleaning up contaminated soil at facilities that extract lead

■Improving lead testing in children at high risk of exposure and remediating the sources of the exposure

■Providing academic and behavioral intervention for children with elevated blood lead levels. The report said this could increase lifetime incomes and the likelihood of those children graduating from high school and college, as well as decrease their potential for teen parenthood and criminal conviction.

Health Impact Project director Rebecca Morley noted that Michigan “is doing a terrific job” of addressing childhood intervention and pointed to the state’s use of Children’s Health Insurance Program to invest in remediation for lead in water and paint.

“It’s the first time Medicaid CHIP dollars are being used for primary prevention,” Hanna-Attisha said. “For any child who has Medicaid, they can have their home inspected and abated before they have an elevated lead level ... and if they do find lead in plumbing, those dollars will go to replace the lead plumbing.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded Michigan State University $14.4 million to create a registry to monitor the health effects of Flint residents who were exposed to lead.

“The investments we make now to address lead exposure will pay dividends later in terms of healthier and more successful generations of children,” Morley said.


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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg