Some 5,000 children lead poisoned across Michigan
Lead in the water in Flint has awakened the sleeping giant of childhood lead poisoning. Prior to Flint, the people of Michigan grew comfortable with slowly decreasing rates of childhood lead poisoning.
Did you know that each year more than 5,000 children are lead poisoned across the state of Michigan, the vast majority by hazardous lead paint in their homes?
Today, there is new attention on childhood lead poisoning. Stories in the media have developed a high level of public awareness. Where once many knew little about lead poisoning, now most Michiganders know that lead poisoning needlessly causes irreversible brain damage in children.
In Michigan in 2014, there were 5,053 children birth through age 5 with documented elevated blood lead levels, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Some 106 of those children lived in Flint, and the water crisis was just getting underway. In 2015, the Flint number rose to 112. And those are just the children tested in a timely manner. We understand that many more children have been exposed, particularly in Flint.
Outside of Flint, it doesn’t appear that the problem is the water. So why are nearly 5,000 additional children lead poisoned each year?
Part of that answer is because, in Michigan, we are quite literally using our children as lead detectors. It was the rising number of lead poisoned children that brought the water situation in Flint to a head, not proactive water testing. Likewise, communities across the state still rely upon lead poisoned children to figure out which houses have hazards.
In most communities across Michigan, there is no requirement that lead hazards in homes be fixed before a child is poisoned. In fact, there is not even a requirement to check for lead hazards before a home is rented or sold. Instead we continue to use children as the canaries in the coalmine.
We are shocked when we look at the Flint water crises and hear that due diligence was not done to ensure safe drinking water. Yet when it comes to housing, we seem to feel it’s OK to roll the dice with children’s health.
Shouldn’t we be checking?
Each child poisoned is a tragedy. That alone should be enough to call us to action. But there is one more reason — a $206 million reason. That’s the amount of lost lifetime wages for each annual cohort of children poisoned. Not only will those children be poorer, but so will Michigan’s talent pool. Employers can’t afford this brain drain in the workforce and need to join the call for ending childhood lead poisoning in Michigan.
The choice is Michigan’s to make. Do we want to keep pumping money into the tragedy of lead poisoning? Do we want to pay avoidable health care and special education costs, escalating bills for corrections, and lost revenue due to decrements in our work force?
Do we want to continue lead poisoning 5,000 children a year?
Or do we have the courage to say enough is enough and stop using kids as lead detectors? It’s time that we learn from Flint and implement systemic solutions that protect children in every community. Whether it’s water or paint, it’s time for local communities and the state of Michigan to commit to an end to childhood lead poisoning.
Paul Haan is executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition.