Lead levels drop in Michigan kids after Flint spike. But so does testing.

Lead levels decline across Michigan

The percentage of Michigan youths with elevated lead levels declined last year in much of the state. Some experts attribute the decline to fewer tests following the Flint water crisis, but others say there is no easy explanation. Search for your community or ZIP Code in the magnifying glass below.

Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Lead levels among Michigan’s children fell in 2017 after spiking up, and while officials cheer the news, some experts are linking the drop to less testing.

Preliminary numbers released last week by the state of Michigan show 3.1 percent of children 6 and younger had elevated lead levels, down from 3.6 percent in 2016.

The drop follows increases in 2016 after years of steady decline. As recently as 1998, close to half of Michigan children had elevated levels, which can cause developmental delays, anemia, behavioral issues and other health problems.

“Although we are pleased there has been a decline, we cannot define a ‘driver’ that has led to it at this time other than to say many communities have implemented programs and policies to address lead exposure in the past couple of years,” Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, told Bridge Magazine.

Experts have attributed the 2016 increase to fallout from the Flint water crisis, which exposed hundreds of children to lead and prompted parents and doctors to test more kids throughout Michigan.

Now that the crisis has faded from the headlines, tests fell 10 percent last year to 150,000 statewide.

The threat remains, experts said, particularly in older homes built before the early 1960s when lead paint was still commonly used.

A far greater source of lead poisoning than water, old homes expose crawling children to paint chips and dust from windows, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Lead is still in all these older homes in Michigan, and until it is substantially abated or these homes are removed from the housing stock, there is still a hazard to kids,” said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Housing.

The two Michigan cities with the most older homes –  Detroit and Grand Rapids – have the most problems with lead.

Both cities saw declines in 2017, but remain far above the state average: The percent of young children with elevated lead levels dropped to 7 percent from 8.4 percent in Detroit, and to 8 percent from 11.8 percent in Grand Rapids.

In Detroit, at least 10 percent of kids in eight of 27 city ZIP Codes tested positive for elevated lead levels.

Many are in some of the city’s oldest and most blighted neighborhoods, such as the Virginia Park neighborhood in the city’s 48206 ZIP Code, where 19 percent of tested children had elevated levels last year.

That compares to 3.1 percent in Flint last year, which increased slightly from 2.9 percent.

Thompson has led efforts to test children in that Detroit ZIP Code and another, 48214, where 16 percent of children had elevated lead levels last year. He said 85 percent of the 1,000 homes he’s tested in that neighborhood were positive for lead.

It’s one of several initiatives in cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids, but remediation efforts are expensive: $15,000 per home to remove paint from walls and windows.

In Grand Rapids, Paul Haan has worked with the city government to eliminate lead in 1,500 housing units in the past 14 years. There are potentially thousands more in need of remediation, said Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.

“If we really want to drive numbers down there are other ways to do it,” Haan said.

Haan said he wants more communities to adopt tougher housing standards that require owners and landlords to eliminate lead hazards before homes and apartments are sold or rented.

Detroit has such an ordinance but not all landlords comply.

Detroit also has implemented numerous reforms and last summer halted demolitions in several ZIP Codes with older homes after a city study linked the city’s aggressive housing demolitions to lead poisoning.

Under Mayor Mike Duggan, the city has knocked down more than 13,000 blighted homes since 2013. That sends clouds of paint dust in the air, and the city study found that 2.4 percent of Detroit children with elevated lead levels “may be attributable to demolitions.”

More needs to be done, said Thompson.

Since 2012, tests in Detroit have dropped about 14 percent to 25,000 last year, Thompson said. Tests are mandatory for children whose parents receive Medicaid, while outreach efforts test youths in high-risk areas.

“As testing goes up, so does lead poisoning. That’s what we typically see,” Thompson said.

He is among those advocating for universal testing statewide for youths 6 and younger. Most tests cost a few dollars apiece, which would add millions to the state budget.

“We are preserving the future by getting lead levels down and protecting their intelligence,” Thompson said.

Detroit officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In Flint, increases in elevated lead levels also may be due to testing, said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center whose research helped expose the Flint water crisis.

After denials from state officials about the quality of the city’s drinking water after its source switched to the Flint River in 2014, Hanna-Attisha  conducted research that showed blood lead levels in the city’s children had in fact doubled.

She said that, at least in Flint, the fact that fewer people getting tested may have led to last year’s uptick.

“After the lead crisis became public, everyone and their brother got tested ... not just high-risk kids, but all kids, and thus the rate decreased,” Hanna-Attisha wrote in an email to Bridge.

“So the fact that it went back up a little may represent the return of screening to only the higher-risk kids.”

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