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Number of Detroit kids with elevated lead levels drops, but problems remain

Daniel Schwen
Wikimedia Commons

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say even low levels of lead in blood can affect a child’s IQ, their ability to pay attention and their performance in school. Kids are most often exposed to lead in paint in homes built before 1978.

Robert Scott is with the Michigan Department of Community Health. He says over the past several years, there’s been great progress in cleaning up lead contamination in old homes in the state. He says lead poisoning in kids in Detroit has dropped more than 70 percent since 2004.

“I do want to emphasize though, that with this steady decrease over the years, there are still pockets in Detroit and other places where the rates are still much higher,” says Scott.

He says areas of Highland Park, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Benton Harbor and Muskegon still have high rates of kids with elevated lead levels.

Big push for lead abatement and a shrinking city

There are a couple of reasons for the dramatic drop in the number of kids with elevated lead levels.

Lyke Thompson is the director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University.

“The first reason is the work of a coalition of non-profit and public actors that goes under the title of Green & Healthy Homes Initiative that has worked tirelessly to try to make sure that action on this issue is very coordinated and very carefully implemented in the city of Detroit," he says.

The second reason?

"The profound number of homes that are going vacant and that are being demolished in Detroit. As we get rid of this older housing stock, then there’s fewer places that are likely to lead poison children.”

The Michigan Department of Community Health reports 8.5 percent of kids in Detroit who are 6 years old or younger still exceed the new more stringent lead guideline set by CDC. 

Thompson says more needs to be done to get that number closer to zero.

“One, you need to aggressively get rid of these old lead-poisoned homes. Two, where you can’t get rid of them, you need to go in and abate the lead paint from the house, that is, you need to eliminate it from the high risk areas like windows. Three, you need to make sure that as soon as you know a child is lead poisoned you intervene really quickly, because you can get those lead levels down and reduce the damage to those kids," he says.

But even with all the progress that's been made, the CDC recently slashed its lead prevention funding. Thompson says those cuts are already being felt in Detroit.

“It’s meant a tremendous cut in services. You had nursing services where people went out and checked on the homes and the environment where these kids are getting lead poisoned and made sure the families knew what to do, helped them deal with the lead poison in the house and so forth and so on – that has gone from more than a dozen people down to only one.

There is this other procedure where you do what’s called an EBL investigation where you try to identify elevated blood lead levels in the house and what they’re coming from – that has been totally eliminated. In addition, the funding for abatement in the city is for the moment gone – we hear it may be started back up under a different program – but you know, the services to lead-poisoned kids in the city are just drastically cut,” he says.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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