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It’s not just Flint: Michigan lead levels up after long decline

Lead worries health officials

After nearly two decades of decline, the percent of children ages 0 to 6 tested with elevated levels of lead in their blood rose in Michigan in 2016. Although the rise was slight, from 3.4 percent to 3.6 percent, health officials said they are concerned. Some of the biggest increases occurred in parts of Detroit and Grand Rapids. Children typically get lead from dust and residue tied to old homes that have lead paint in them. Lead was banned in house paint in 1978 and removed from gasoline in 1995. Enter your city ("Lansing, MI") or city and ZIP code ("Lansing, MI 48917") into the map below to check testing levels in your community. The color coding below is for 2016.


For the first time since 1998, the rate of children affected by elevated levels of lead increased in Michigan in 2016, triggering alarm among public health officials and child advocates.

Though slight, the increase ‒ from 3.4 percent to 3.6 percent ‒ shows that the battle to reduce lead exposure remains important as a number of high-poverty areas in Grand Rapids, Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, as well as Detroit, saw marked increases in exposure, according to data released by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

MORE COVERAGE:  Detroit demo blitz linked to lead poisoning

“The questions are ‘What’s happening? What’s going on here?’” said Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical officer.


She said state health officials are worried that lead poisoning metrics are going "in reverse direction" from the decades-long trend downward almost everywhere.

"It's really unknown why the (percentages) are going up," Wells told Bridge.

It’s a change that is prompting action in Detroit, where the city’s health department has determined that thousands of city-ordered home demolitions may be increasing the incidence of childhood lead poisoning. In Grand Rapids, the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan has been working for years to clean up homes with lead exposure. The news of a recent increase surprised local officials.

Lead paint for homes was banned in 1978 and lead in gasoline was phased out in 1995. That helped bring the statewide exposure level down from above 40 percent of children to fewer than 5 percent by 2012. But in many older homes – often in the poorest parts of cities across the state – lead paint and the dust it can create remain the biggest problems.

Organizations like Healthy Homes have worked to remediate homes in the state. But now, those efforts are not leading to lower rates.

“There have been a lot of things done in (Grand Rapids) to prevent lead exposure over the years,” said Paul Haan of the Healthy Homes Coalition in a recent news release. “While these things initially worked well, they are no longer resulting in fewer children being poisoned as they used to.”

In Flint, a national scandal exploded after a switch in municipal water sources triggered the release of lead from pipes into the city's drinking water. Flint actually has childhood lead level rates well below Detroit and Grand Rapids.

The Flint crisis drew international outrage, however, because state officials approved the water switch without taking proper safety precautions.  

Across the rest of the state, however, the culprit is not drinking water but lead dust, as the latest statewide lead numbers, made available by the state earlier this year but little noticed, show. When a child tests positive for elevated levels, health officials attempt to determine how lead got in their system and visit homes. What they typically find is lead paint.

Removing lead paint from a home – which can range from simply painting over it, to replacing windows – can cost $5,000 to $10,000, Wells said.

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