Boston Edison/Dexter Linwood Area of Detroit Has Highest Percentage of Children with Elevated Blood Lead Levels

In 2019, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) reported 1,299 children under 6 years old had Elevated Blood Lead Levels (EBLL) in the City of Detroit. The Detroit zip code with the highest percentage of children under the age of 6 with EBLL was 48206, which is located in the Boston Edison/Dexter Linwood area of the City. Here, 15.5 percent of tested children under the age of 6 had an EBLL. Overall, there were 8 zip codes in Detroit where 10 percent or more of tested children under the age of 6 had an EBLL. Furthermore, the number of children with EBLL is likely substantially under reported of the true number. This is because only a third of the eligible children are tested, so if all were tested, it is likely than many more would have an EBLL. In addition, testing has substantially decreased during the pandemic.

The 8 zip codes with EBLL above 10 percent in Detroit in 2019 were:

  • 48202 (10.6%)
  • 48203 (10.5%)
  • 48204 (13.1%)
  • 48206 (15.5%)
  • 48213 (14.4%)
  • 48214 (12.3%)
  • 48215 (10.4%)
  • 48238 (10.9%)

These neighborhoods are amongst the oldest residential neighborhoods in the Detroit-Metro area. And, with a few exceptions, the zip codes with high numbers of children with EBLL have high percentages of black residents. The first map below shows the zip codes in Detroit with the percentage of children under the age of 6 with EBLL; the second map shows the percentage of black residents in Detroit and Metro-Detroit. The overlap is apparent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no safe level of lead, and even a small amount can cause irreversible damage. Yet, in Detroit several areas continue to be plagued with by lead exposure. There are several reasons behind this, many of which are impacted by income, poverty, access to safe and updated housing.

Lead paint was banned from use in 1978 yet there are more than 337,000 homes in Detroit built before 1980 (when lead paint came off the shelves), according to Census data. Additionally, income directly impacts what type of housing an individual and/or a family can afford. With a median income of $31,000 and 35 percent of families in the City living at or below the poverty level it is fair to suggest that many families are living in older, less expensive housing where hazardous issues are likely more prevalent, and these families cannot afford the $20,000 to $40,000 cost of abating the major lead hazards in the home. Lead paint is a top contributor to lead poisoning and without it being mitigated, lead poisoning will continue. Additionally, some children are lead poisoned through soil, spices, pottery and water. Also, leaded gasoline and demolitions have added lead dust to the soils in Detroit.

Children’s cognitive and physical health will continue to be impacted without mitigation of lead poisoning and its causes, specifically lead paint remaining in homes throughout the City. Children with EBLL can be impacted by the following side effects of the neurotoxin of lead:

 •Decreased Intelligence

•Decreased impulse control and thus increases reactivity

•Calcium deficiencies

•ADHD and Behavioral issues


•Decreased school performance

•Permanent damage to kidneys and the heart

Concerns over lead poisoning and the resources needed to eliminate it have long been a topic of discussion, however without funding there can be no action. Funding needs to be direct and plentiful as well.  So a multi-faceted plan needs to provide regular lead testing, funding for lead abatement, and relocation means to get families out of homes that aren’t worth salvaging and into safer ones. Lead abatement and housing relocation programs exist, but the necessary funding to make a greater impact and create long-term sustainability clear has not been realized.

Long-term funding and policies to reduce and eventually eliminate lead poisoning should include:

•Universal blood lead testing for all children under 6 in each County in Southeast Michigan;

•A required Lead Investigation/Risk Assessment (LI/RA) for all homes at sale (for homes built before 1980) and required abatement of hazards, when they are found.

•A requirement for all landlords to complete a LI/RA and abate all hazards for homes older than 1980.

•An increase in the home abatements in Metro-Detroit by 400-500% annually.

•The financial and programmatic ability to support the relocation of several hundred households a year, where abatement is not available for their homes.

•A cleaning program for homes where children or pregnant women are living, and/or where a child has been identified with an EBLL or the home has lead paint hazards. This program would provide ongoing training and support to teach and incentivize families to super clean their homes until their home can be abated or until the family can relocate.

Lead Poisoning in Detroit, 2016

Lead poisoning has long been a serious problem for Detroit’s children, producing a lifetime of reduced cognitive capacity and many other consequences. In 1998, 17,015 Detroit children under 6 years old were lead poisoned at or above the 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (ug/dl) level. For over a decade lead poisoning has been declining yeay-by-year, but in 2016, the number rose by over 400 children to 2,073 (Figure 1). This was over 27 percent increase in one year (Figure 3).

It is likely that the proximal cause of this rise was an increase in testing of children. As shown below (Figure 2), testing had been declining in Detroit in recent years through 2015. In 2016, testing of children shot up by 9.5 percent (Figure 3). Over 2,000 more children were tested during this time. This was for two clear reasons. First, the Flint crisis surrounding lead in drinking water triggered more parents to have their children tested. Second, the City of Detroit, emerging from bankruptcy, was rebuilding its Health Department, and that agency began to actively test for lead and to encourage others to do so as well.

While, the percentage of children with lead poisoning has recently increased, the numbers are not evenly distributed across Detroit (Figure 4 below). Rather, children with lead poisoning are concentrated in zip codes where there are many older houses, mostly built well before the 1940s when lead paint was used frequently in homes. Second, these zip codes have low medium incomes (recall that poverty has increased in Detroit), and residents cannot afford to maintain their homes or landlords choose not to do so. Third, there are still many children in these zip codes.

So, many children are exposed to fraying homes where lead paint was heavily used historically. In one of these zip codes, 48214, preliminary data from a sample of over 500 homes indicates that as many as 87.9 percent of the homes assessed have some lead present on windows, walls, floors or porches. In this same zip code, tests show that about 17 percent of children have lead poisoning. The zip code with the highest percentage of children with lead poisoning is 48206 at 22.3 percent.

So, what can be done? Three important strategies are being executed by the City and others.

  • First, the Health Department attempts to case manage lead poisoned children, making sure that their home gets assessed and parents are trained to protect the child. Early intervention may reduce the long term effects of poisoning.
  • Second, where feasible, the homes of these children are referred for lead abatement, a procedure where lead hazards are removed from the home using public dollars, where the household cannot afford to pay. This can be very expensive, ranging from $5,000 to over $20,000. Still this costs a lot less than the lifetime cost of lead poisoning for a child.
  • Third, the City recently passed amendments to its property maintenance code that requires landlords to remove lead hazards from homes that they rent. In effect, this requires them to remove lead hazards. The City will be ramping this strategy up over the next few years, and this is expected to help the over 50 percent of Detroit residents who now rent.

Two more strategies are emerging as well:

  • First, ClearCorps and The Wayne State Center for Urban Studies are piloting an effort to identify homes with lead where children reside. Through this process an abatement of early lead hazards will take place, removing the hazard of a child being lead poisoned. The challenge for this approach is whether enough abatement funds and contractors to do the work can be made available for these homes.
  • Second, another possibility is to help families, who might choose to do so, to relocate to areas where homes have little or no lead paint. As Figure 4 above shows, several of the northern and western zip codes of Detroit have relatively low levels of lead poisoning of children. Figure 5, below, shows the percentage of tested children identified as lead poisoned for all of Wayne County. Figure 6 shows Oakland County. Figure 7 shows Macomb County. Many of these zip codes have no reported lead poisoning cases, but some of the housing may be prohibitively expensive for current Detroit residents.