Residents of the city of Flint, including estimates of up to 9,000 kids, have been exposed to dangerous lead that leached from outdated pipes into the drinking water in their homes, schools and businesses. Given the harmful, lifelong effects of lead exposure, the problems and needs of the community of Flint and its people—especially kids—will last for decades to come. Unfortunately, while the breadth of lead exposure and government’s responsibility are unique to Flint, lead poisoning is not.
Michigan children around the state have been exposed to lead through old lead-based paint and lead dust in older homes as well as contaminated soil and old infrastructure with lead. Because of this, the problem persists predominantly among impoverished areas of Michigan and children of color.
Lead Toxicity’s Lasting Effects
The effects of lead exposure at any level are irreversible and prevention is paramount. Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in a body. It interferes with functions of positive minerals in the body, such as, iron, calcium and zinc, which are vital to the healthy development of a person’s bones, organs, brain and nervous system. Toddlers are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning due to their high levels of absorption, their rapid development and their hand-to-mouth behavior that results in them ingesting lead.1
Extensive research has shown that even small levels of lead exposure in young children and developing fetuses impacts cognitive development and is linked to lower IQ, academic performance, decision-making and impulse control. Not only is the health and well-being of the child forever changed with lead exposure, but our entire society is compromised. Childhood lead exposure costs Michigan $330 million a year in decreased lifetime earnings and increased costs for medical care, crime and incarceration, and special education.2
Poverty Poses A Greater Risk
A national survey found that children at highest risk for having elevated blood lead levels are those living in metropolitan areas and in housing built before 1946, from low-income families, and of African-American and Hispanic origin.3 This is primarily due to their exposure to lead-based paint, soil contaminated from past use of lead in gasoline and dated infrastructure delivering drinking water, the cause of widespread water contamination in Flint where 66.5% of children under 5 years of age live below the poverty line.4 Low-income children are also more likely to be undernourished with iron- and calcium-deficient diets, making them more susceptible to lead poisoning because their bodies absorb more lead when other nutrients are lacking.
By the Numbers in Michigan
In 2014, 38% of 1- to 2-year-olds in Michigan were tested for lead statewide and 52% were tested in fourteen target communities where children are at higher risk of lead poisoning. The city of Detroit had nearly 31% of the entire state’s confirmed and unconfirmed5 cases of lead poisoning in 2014 followed by Grand Rapids with 9%. Highland Park, where poverty is rife at 48% living below the federal poverty threshold, 19.7% of toddlers tested had an elevated blood lead level of 5 ug/dl6, both confirmed and unconfirmed tests.
In 2013, prior to the lead-contaminated drinking water that flowed in Flint, the city was already one of Michigan’s high-risk lead areas—of the 44% of 1- to 2-year-olds tested, 4.4% tested positive for elevated blood levels by confirmed and unconfirmed tests. According to data from Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center, the percentage of children younger than 5 with elevated lead levels in Flint nearly doubled in 2014 and 2015. In city wards with the highest levels of lead in water, the levels more than tripled.
While lead poisoning cannot be reversed, its effects can be counteracted and kids can still lead healthy, successful lives. Recently, the Legislature approved a $28 million budget supplemental bill to deal with the effects of the Flint crisis, but government must continue to assess the situation in Flint and appropriate additional funds for decades to come.
The kids of Flint that have been poisoned—and the assumption should be that they all have been exposed—should be monitored closely while wraparound education, nutrition and health services are provided. These supports must also stay with these kids wherever they end up living. Intervention must be funded through Early On, Head Start, home visitation programs, school nurses, the Children’s Healthcare Access Program (CHAP), Pathways for Potential, extension of Women, Infants, and Children benefits to age 10 with expansion of locations and full-time employees, as well as behavioral health and developmental services for children with high blood levels. Michigan must also increase funding for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program to address the ongoing threat of lead poisoning in other low-income communities.
- World Health Organization. Childhood Lead Poisoning. 2010; Available at: http://www.who.int/ceh/publications/leadguidance.pdf
- Tina Reynolds. Flint crisis shows need for further investment in statewide lead programs, advocates say. Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Housing (MIALSH). Nov. 9, 2015. Available at: http://www.mileadsafehomes.blogspot.com
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Lead Exposure in Young Children: A Housing-Based Approach to Primary Prevention of Lead Poisoning – Recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. Oct. 2004. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/publications/primarypreventiondocument.pdf
- U.S. Census. Table DP03. 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
- Confirmed elevated BLL greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL: A child with one venous blood specimen greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL, or two capillary blood specimens greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL drawn within 12 weeks of each other. Unconfirmed elevated BLL greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL: A single capillary blood lead test greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL, or two capillary tests greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL drawn more than 12 weeks apart. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/data/definitions.htm
- Ug/dL: Micrograms per deciliter, the reference point for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define elevated blood lead levels.