Jackie Hernandez, the community connections coordinator at the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, speaks during a Michigan House Health Policy Committee meeting on June 22, 2023. | Screenshot
When Jackie Hernandez’s oldest son was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and struggled in school after being exposed to lead, it was “the worst feeling in the world,” the Grand Rapids resident told a Michigan House panel on Thursday.
“I remember feeling as if I was the worst parent in the world,” Hernandez said during a House Health Policy Committee meeting.
Years later, Hernandez’s son would go on to graduate from high school – something children exposed to lead are seven times less likely to do than those who are not – but the struggle against lead wasn’t over for her. Now the community connections coordinator at the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, Hernandez on Thursday voiced her support for legislation that would require all young children in Michigan to be tested for the presence of lead in their blood.
Lead is a highly toxic metal once commonly used in paint, plumbing pipes and gasoline, and exposure to lead can lead to a wide array of health problems, including behavioral issues, learning disabilities, seizures, anemia, and brain damage, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lead exposure is especially dangerous for children under age 6 because their bodies are rapidly developing, the CDC reports.
During the Health Policy Committee meeting, health professionals, parent advocates and lawmakers backed Senate Bill 31, which the Senate passed 27-11 last week and is sponsored by state Sen. John Cherry (D-Flint), and House Bill 4200, sponsored by Rep. Helena Scott (D-Detroit). No one spoke against the legislation, which is expected to be voted out of committee next week.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2024, the legislation would require physicians to test a child’s blood for the presence of lead when they are between 12 and 24 months old and again when they are between the ages of 2 and 6 years old. The testing must be done with parental consent, and parents would be able to object to testing.
Currently, only children on Medicaid are required to be screened for lead poisoning in Michigan; the bill’s sponsors emphasized that all children can be exposed to lead, particularly in a state where about 70% of the housing stock was built before 1978. Lead-based paints were banned for residential use nationwide in 1978.
The legislation would also require that a minor must be tested for lead at more regular intervals if a physician determines they are at a higher exposure risk due to living in a home that was built before 1978 or where other children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning.
“The genesis for this bill comes from my personal experience,” Cherry said. “I represent and live in the city of Flint in Genesee County and had my daughter in the midst of the water crisis. We went to our pediatrician; we were never asked about lead testing. We asked if we should have our child lead tested, and the question back was, ‘Well, are you on Medicaid?’”
“Whether or not you’re on Medicaid doesn’t necessarily determine whether you are likely to be exposed to lead,” Cherry continued. “There’s all sorts of factors: the age of your house, the environment your house was in – whether there was previous exposure to heavy industry in the area.”
Flint, as Cherry noted, and Benton Harbor have suffered from extensive lead poisoning. Other Michigan communities have also faced high rates of lead poisoning, including Hamtramck and Grand Rapids. In 2021, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that Michigan ranked the third highest in the nation for children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.
According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, 4,013 children under the age of 6 who tested for lead in 2022 had elevated blood lead levels. That represents 3.7% of the 108,080 children tested in 2022.
The number of children tested in 2022 represented close to 16% 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.
“Every day, children across the state are impacted by lead,” Dr. Arsala Bakhtyar, a pediatrician at Corewell Health in Southeast Michigan, said during the Health Policy Committee meeting.
“The impacts of exposure are very long lasting, they’re irreversible and they can adversely harm a child’s health,” Bakhtyar continued.
Ellen Vial, the engagement coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Council and an organizer for the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes, said about 20% of Michigan children are now tested for lead.
“Establishing this norm for universal lead testing is the foremost policy intervention we can take in the state of Michigan to protect kids from lead poisoning,” Vial said.
Early detection of lead, supporters of the legislation said, would allow parents to understand how to mitigate exposure, make changes in their homes and access support from health care professionals, the state and other organizations. Data from the testing would also allow lawmakers to better understand which communities need resources to address lead.
“It only makes sense there are more safeguards in place to ensure kids are being tested regularly,” Scott said.
Others who spoke in favor of the legislation during Thursday’s committee hearing included representatives from the Detroit Lead Parent Advocacy Group, the Learning Disabilities Association of Michigan and the Ecology Center. State Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo), who chairs the House Health Policy Committee, also said the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan League for Public Policy support the legislation.
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