The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says fewer kids under age six are getting their blood tested for lead as compared to last year. 2020 started with comparable numbers of kids getting blood lead testing between 2019 and 2020.
In March of 2020, however, 48% fewer kids got tested compared to March 2019. There was a 76% decrease in testing in April 2020 compared to April 2019. The most recent data the state has is from May. There were 61% fewer kids getting tested in May 2020 compared to May 2019.
State officials say that there could be a number of reasons for this change, but it’s likely that it’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They say people have been going to doctor's offices and clinics less often, and that’s where this sort of testing would occur.
Tom Largo is an environmental health surveillance manager for the MDHHS. He says the drop is concerning because lead exposure for young kids often happens at home.
“I’m not saying it will happen for sure, but it’s possible we may actually end up having more children with elevated blood lead levels because they are spending so much time at home," he says. "Add that into the fact that we’re not testing as much, and we can’t identify them to help them out, that accentuates the problem.”
Largo says that older houses and residential buildings, particularly those built before 1950, are likely to have lead paint throughout the house. In neighborhoods, towns, and cities with a lot of older residential buildings, this poses a big issue for small children. There’s so much hand to mouth activity with children under the age of six, says Largo, as well as younger children who crawl on all fours. This makes them susceptible to ingesting paint chips or inhaling dust with lead in it. Even if they’re playing outside, lead and other forms of pollution are often present in dirt.
Largo says this gets even more concerning in the case of an emergency that requires medical intervention.
“There’s also the really, really high blood lead level cases that we might also be missing. What’s really worrisome is when you may have those really scary levels that we’re missing because of a lack of testing,” says Largo.
Data from local health departments show that the city of Detroit and Genesee County each saw the biggest percentages of decreases in blood lead testing when comparing 2019 and 2020, with both counties seeing a 90% decrease.