Childrens’ lead levels spike in Detroit, across state

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Health officials are reporting a higher percentage of children under age 6 statewide with elevated lead levels in their blood in April, May and June than compared to previous years.

The increases were especially noticeable in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids and Jackson County.

About 4.2 percent of the 39,330 children tested across the state had elevated levels — the highest percentage of children since 2012, according to a report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

During the second quarter of 2015, about 2.9 percent of all children had elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream. Elevated levels is defined as 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood or more.

The uptick may be the result of more parents getting their kids tested. During the first six months of this year, 80,185 were checked, the highest number this decade, according to state data.

“I think there’s an awful lot of increased awareness of providers across the state … because of the Flint water crisis,” said Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive. “I think parents are now much more educated about lead. You don’t want crises to make people more aware, but this does have the silver lining of making people more aware.”

Lead levels in children typically increase in the summer from increased contact with lead dust in the air from paint in homes built before 1978 and exposure to lead in soil or water.

Higher blood lead levels put children at a greater likelihood of lead poisoning, which can result in brain damage, kidney damage and slowed mental and physical development.

In Flint, where a state of emergency over lead-leaching water pipelines remains in place, about 4.8 percent of 1,335 children tested had lead levels in their blood above 5 micrograms per deciliter. That’s up from 3.5 percent of 686 children tested in second quarter of 2015.

Flint’s percentage of children with elevated lead levels in the second quarter is the highest its been since the same period in 2010, state data shows.

With many Flint residents drinking bottled water or using lead-removing faucet filters, the city’s lead exposure is more likely from dust and soil, Wells said.

“If they’re using their filters properly, they shouldn’t be getting lead in the water in Flint,” Wells said of residents.

Health officials stress that the absorption of lead in the body can be reduced or prevented by maintaining a diet with high levels of vitamin C, calcium and iron.

In response to Flint’s lead poisoning crisis, state lawmakers have appropriated $17 million for food and nutrition programs, and another $70 million for early childhood education and health care programs.

The Flint crisis also has caused state officials to redirect their attention to sources of lead in other older cities. In May, Gov. Rick Snyder reconstituted a state board that ceased to exist in 2010 to develop long-term strategies for eliminating all lead children can be exposed to.

Uptick in Detroit

In Detroit, about 10.8 percent of the 5,876 children tested during the second quarter had elevated levels of lead, a noticeable uptick from 6.8 percent during the same time period last year, state health data shows.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, executive director of public health for Detroit, said the city’s increase is largely due to a warmer than usual spring and summer and more testing of children younger than 6 that Detroit had ceased from 2012-15 when the city’s health department was privatized.

“The numbers can be interpreted as an uptick in lead, but really there were children not getting tested for lead who are getting tested now,” he said. “Because we started testing them, they’re starting to show up in our numbers.”

In the summer months, the frequent opening and closing of windows can cause lead paint and dust to get into the air, increasing the chances of exposure for young children, El-Sayed said.

The roughly 10.8 percent of Detroit children with elevated lead levels in the second quarter was at it highest mark for that same time of the year since 2010, when lead levels topped 11.2 percent.

Grand Rapids, the state’s second largest city, reported having 8.4 percent of 1,294 children tested with elevated lead levels, up from 5.1 percent during the second quarter of 2015 and the highest percentage of kids for that time period since 2010.

Spike in Flint testing

In Jackson County, 9.7 percent of 763 children tested had elevated lead levels — more than twice the percentage of last year’s tests in April, May and June.

Jackson County’s results were the highest for the second quarter in six years, according to state data dating to 2010.

During the first three months of the year, Flint had a major spike in the number of children who were tested as state and county officials urged parents to have their young children’s blood tested after Snyder declared a state of emergency Jan. 5.

Approximately 3,774 children were tested during the winter months, a five-fold increase from 2015, state data shows.

“We have been doing a lot more testing and encouraging the physician community to do more testing and I think because of the awareness more parents are getting their children tested,” said Mark Valacak, health officer for the Genesee County Health Department. “That’s giving us a broader picture of exposure levels.”

Lead testing

Detroit’s health department offers lead testing at The Family Place clinic at 8726 Woodward and the Samaritan Center at 5555 Conner.

The Genesee County Health Department offers walk-in lead testing at 630 S. Saginaw St. in Flint.

Most pediatricians and local health departments also test children’s blood for lead. For more information, call the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at (517) 335-8885.

Low-to-moderate income families in Genesee, Ingham, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Kent, Lenawee, Macomb, Oakland and Saginaw counties and the city of Detroit may qualify for lead abatement of their home.

To get your home tested for lead, call 866-691-5323 or go online to for more information.