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Detroit pilot program will reach into homes to prevent lead poisoning

Peeling lead paint.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Starting this summer, Detroit will try a to combat its problem with childhood lead poisoning by heading to what’s usually the source: the homes where children live.

The city has identified five ZIP codes across the city where children are at the highest risk of having elevated blood lead levels. The plan is to go door-to-door in those neighborhoods, identify homes with children and pregnant women, and provide in-home testing, hazard mitigation, and education in the hopes of preventing lead poisoning to begin with.

“Before, we had to wait for parents to bring their children in for testing and work from there. Now, we are going to try and reach them in their homes,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the director of Detroit's Health Department.

8.8 percent of Detroit children had elevated blood lead levels in 2016, the highest prevalence in the state and up from 7.5 percent in 2015. But the five areas targeted by the program have much higher rates. In one ZIP code, 48206, over 22 percent of children tested in 2016 were lead-poisoned.

Khaldun says lead paint is the biggest culprit in childhood lead poisoning, especially in cities like Detroit with a lot of old and substandard housing. But there’s another possible culprit here: the city’s record demolition blitz.

In the past four years, Detroit has demolished around 14,000 homes as part of a massive blight-removal strategy. But there are serious concerns about whether all the demolitions complied with rules for environmental remediation of properties prior to knocking them down, and there is evidence to suggest that some of the demolitions may have contributed to Detroit’s lead-poisoning problem by releasing lead-laden dust into surrounding neighborhoods. A 2017 Detroit Health Department report suggested such a link.

Khaldun says that in order to exercise maximum caution, the city also plans to halt demolitions in all the targeted ZIP codes for the duration of this program. “We want to make sure we are doing everything we can,” she said. “Even one lead-poisoned child is too many.”

The city says it is “seeking an external evaluator to do a robust assessment of the public health impacts of demolitions in Detroit, including lead,” and also “implementing more stringent protocols” on demolitions.

The program will involve multiple city departments, including housing, buildings and safety, and the water department. It comes as Detroit is stepping up enforcement of a new rental housing ordinance that, among other things, provides more protections for renters living in substandard or dangerous housing conditions.

Khaldun says the $1.25 million program is scheduled to get off the ground in July.

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