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.

Lenawee County has highest percentage of children with elevated lead levels

The data discussed in this post is preliminary data on the lead poisoning of Michigan’s children in 2015 and was supplied by Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) at the county and zip code level, as well as data for the city of Detroit. At the county level, MDHHS also provided an approximate percentage of children who had blood lead levels at 5 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter of blood) and above. Population data was only available by Zip Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA) (which are somewhat inconsistent with zip codes), preventing the calculation of percentage of children affected for the zip code data.

At 10 percent, Lenawee County had the highest percentage of its population under 6, county-wide, with an elevated blood lead level at 5 ug/dL, according to preliminary 2015 data supplied by MDHHS. The city of Adrian is located in rural Lenawee County and within the boundary zip code of 49221. There were 67 children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL in that zip code, according to data supplied by MDHHS.

The city of Detroit had 7.5 percent of its population of children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL . However, Wayne County (excluding Detroit) had less than 2 percent of its population of children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL. All seven counties in Southeastern Michigan had less than 2 percent of its population of children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels. At the more local level though, the second map below shows that zip codes in the Port Huron area had between 55-99 children under the age of 6 with blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL. Portions of southern Oakland and Macomb counties, along with Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area in Washtenaw County, had zip codes with no more than 14 children under the age of 6 with blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL. In Oakland County, the areas around Pontiac and Southfield, along with the area around the Detroit-Metro Airport in Wayne County had slightly higher numbers of children under the age of 6 with blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL; these numbers maxed out at 29, per zip code.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 5 ug/dL is used a reference level by experts “to identify children with blood lead levels that are much higher than most children’s levels.” The CDC has recommended that public health actions be initiated in children under age 6 with blood lead levels above 5 µg/dL. Babies and young children can be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths.

Michigan Lead Data_County

Michigan Lead Data_Zip

When viewing the elevated blood lead levels in Lenawee County overall and at the more local level of zip codes, we see that the number of children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels in Adrian contributed to the county as a whole having among the highest percentage of elevated lead levels. In 2015, according to MDHHS data, the zip code containing the city of Adrian had 67 children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels.

Aside from Adrian, Detroit and the Port Huron area, the central portions of Muskegon County and Grand Rapids had substantial numbers of children with elevated blood lead levels in certain zip codes.

Adrian Lead Data

There were five zip codes in the city of Detroit in 2015 with more than 100 children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL. These zip codes were: 48238, 48204, 48210, 48209 and 48212. Four of these zip codes are aligned in a row on the west side of Detroit, including parts of neighborhoods such as Southwest Detroit. In total, 1,618 children under the age of 6 were reported to have elevated blood lead levels in Detroit in 2015.

Detroit Lead Data

In the southwestern portion of Grand Rapids the zip code of 49507 had 188 children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL. In total, the city had no more than 523 children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels. The only other city with areas with numbers as high or greater was the city of Detroit, according to data supplied by MDHHS.

Grand Rapids Lead

The city of Flint is important when discussing elevated blood lead levels across the state of Michigan. Due to the water crisis that has been plaguing the city, children’s lead levels have gained national attention. The effect on children of lead in Flint’s water is unlikely to be correctly indicated by the 2015 numbers from MDHHS, first, because many children had not been tested, and second, because lead may not be found in their blood a certain amount of time after they quit drinking water containing lead. This is not to say the lead did not impact the children, but it may have been excreted or taken up into organs or bones. Many thousands of children may have been exposed to lead from the water, though the exact number is still unknown.

The 2015 data supplied by MDHHS shows that the highest number of children poisoned in Flint were in zip code 48503, which had 36 children under 6 with lead levels greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL. Portions of the zip codes of 48504, 48505, 48506 and 48507 are also within Flint’s city limits; these zip codes had 28, 15, 18, and 13 cases in 2015, respectively.

Flint Lead

While elevated blood lead levels in children in the city of Flint are being linked to lead found in the drinking water, as caused by the erosion of the city’s pipes, most lead poisoning in Michigan is related to lead in paint. In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint, but some states banned it even earlier. Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning, and is almost exclusively the source of lead poisoning in the Detroit area, as discussed in a previous Drawing Detroit post.

Lead paint often deteriorates as housing ages, shedding dust and flakes, which becomes available to children to ingest. So the age of housing is a proxy for the risk of lead poisoning. The first map below shows that there are more than 50 counties across the state where 60 percent or more of the housing stock-either owner or renter occupied-was built prior to 1980. About 93 percent of all houses in Detroit and Flint were built before 1980, according to Census data. For the city of Grand Rapids 81.2 percent of the housing stock was built prior to 1980, and for the city of Adrian that percentage is 74.9. The second map below shows the percentage of renter-occupied housing units by county. It will require further examination for a conclusion about the statewide data, but certainly in Detroit lead poisoning tends to be higher in renter-occupied housing. This fact offers an opportunity in that it would be possible to use more assertive code enforcement to require landlords to abate lead paint hazards that are so pervasive in Michigan’s older housing. Several communities in Michigan have tested this approach, which has been very effective in other major cities.

Owner 1980

Renter 1980