‘There’s no safe level of lead exposure’

Bipartisan package introduced to reduce lead risk in Michigan

By: - October 14, 2021 2:19 pm

Reps. Sarah Anthony, left, and Rachel Hood, at podium, join activists from across the state to announce a package of legislation that aims to reduce Michigan children’s exposure to lead. Courtesy photo

When TaNiccia Henry’s grandson, Lloyd, was 4 years old, his “feet turned dark and his hair stopped growing.”

Henry, who lives in Detroit and is Lloyd’s primary caregiver, brought her grandson to be tested for lead. When the test came back, the numbers were staggering: Lloyd had a blood level of 28 micrograms per deciliter — a number far above the 5 micrograms that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses as its baseline to identify elevated blood lead levels.

Lead is a highly toxic metal once commonly used in paint, plumbing pipes and gasoline, and exposure to high levels of lead can lead to a wide array of health problems, including anemia, weakness, kidney and brain damage, and death, according to the CDC. 

TaNiccia Henry, whose grandson tested positive for high levels of lead in his blood, is urging lawmakers to pass the legislation announced Thursday. Screenshot

Henry believes her grandson was exposed to lead in her century-old home in Detroit; lead paint wasn’t outlawed in the United States until 1978.

“It took me three years to get [Lloyd’s blood lead levels] under 6 [micrograms],” Henry said at a Thursday press conference announcing a package of legislation that aims to decrease the number of people, particularly children, who are exposed to lead in Michigan.

“Lloyd is now 9, and he has difficulties comprehending and focusing,” Henry continued. 

Currently an activist working to increase awareness around lead exposure, Henry is pushing state lawmakers to pass a 10-bill bipartisan package that is being enrolled Thursday.

Announced during the press conference by state Reps. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids) and Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), the legislation would require lead screenings to be covered for children who are on Medicaid or enrolled in MIChild, a state-run health program; mandate lead paint inspections during the sale of homes built before 1978; require physicians to take courses identifying and treating lead poisoning in children; and change the state public health code’s definition of “elevated blood lead level” from being 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5 micrograms, which is the number used by the CDC.

Numbers for each of the bills in the package are not yet available because they are being enrolled Thursday. Other sponsors include: Reps. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit), Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.), Tim Beson (R-Kawkawlin), Jim Lilly (R-Park Twp.), Julie Calley (R-Portland), Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet), Cynthia Neeley (D-Flint) and Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo).

“This package will provide lead screenings for those most likely to be affected and establish procedures to limit accidental exposure, for instance, notifying families when they purchase an older home,” Anthony said. “The package updates the definitions of lead exposure in accordance with current federal standards. It also takes a proactive approach to treating children who’ve already been exposed. It is a moral crime to continue to allow the people of our state to be exposed to this toxic material. We need to pass this legislation as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers and activists at the press conference emphasized that the overwhelming majority — about 70% — of the state’s housing stock was built before 1978, leaving a huge swath of Michigan’s population to potentially be exposed to lead. 

Many of those who spoke made references to the lead crises in Benton Harbor and Flint, both cities that have suffered from extensive lead poisoning. State officials recently cautioned Benton Harbor residents not to drink their tap water because of concerns over lead.

“We haven’t done all we can to eliminate this preventable tragedy for families,” Hood said.After the Flint water crisis, we told ourselves ‘never again,’ but we know from Benton Harbor’s recent news that we have failed our promise to the people of Michigan.”

It is a moral crime to continue to allow the people of our state to be exposed to this toxic material. We need to pass this legislation as soon as possible.

– Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing)

On Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Benton Harbor’s lead pipes are expected to be replaced within 18 months. Beginning this month, state officials have been providing bottled water to Benton Harbor residents to mitigate exposure to lead.

According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, 2.4% of the 94,032 Michigan children under the age of 6 who tested for lead in 2020 had elevated blood lead levels. 

The number of children tested in 2020 represented 14% of the population of children under 6, an age group that can face particularly severe health problems from lead exposure. The number of children testing positive for elevated blood lead levels has continued to fall since 2010, when 6.3% of children in the same age group tested positive for elevated levels, the state reported.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in September found that 78% of the Michigan children included in their study had detectable levels of lead in their blood. Detectable is not the same as elevated; it includes levels lower than the CDC baseline of 5 micrograms per deciliter. Medical professionals have noted that any amount of lead in a child’s system is unsafe.

The authors of that study told the Advance that a possible bias in their findings comes from the fact that the test samples used in the study are from a lab that individuals go to for “confirmatory testing,” or when they know they likely have elevated blood lead levels — meaning that 78% may be higher than the child population as a whole. 

The study reported 4.5% of Michigan children tested positive for elevated blood levels, a number the authors again said could be biased because of the samples included in the study.

Tina Reynolds, the coalition manager with the Michigan Alliance of Lead Safe Homes, said far more children need to be tested for lead in the state, and Henry emphasized she hopes to see universal testing at some point. This legislation would not mandate universal testing.

“This package of bills is so important and so timely,” Reynolds said at the press conference. “Twenty-twenty was a really hard year for a lot of us and especially for lead-impacted families.”

“It’s important to recognize that 70% of Michigan’s housing stock was built before 1978,” Reynolds continued. “That means 70% of our families are at risk of lead exposure, and we tested 14% of those children. It’s also important to remember 2020 and 2021 were COVID times; we were sheltering in place in our homes. Those homes could be putting our children at risk. We’re excited about this package because we know that there’s no safe level of lead exposure.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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