Detroit’s lead poisoning rates top Flint’s
Despite lessons in Genesee Co., rates are rising across Michigan
Near the tip of the Upper Peninsula in the small community of Chassell, Tammy Waisanen found the perfect building to run her sauna business. She started Keweenaw Saunas in 2014 to manufacture portable barrel saunas that homeowners could place in their backyard. The metal building she bought along U.S. 41 had 3-foot-long clock hands attached to the exterior and old wiring snaked through the wall, leading to an oil reservoir and motor. Waisanen had passed the clock every day on the way to work since the late 1980s.
“I have always loved that clock, not knowing the history it had behind it,” said Waisanen, 47.
About two months ago, she noticed a brown manila envelope on a shelf near the clock’s old wirings. Photos by, clockwise from top: Detroit News archive, David Archambeau, Stephane Steinberg, Detroit News archives and David Archambeau.
Detroit had Michigan’s highest proportion of children test positive for lead poisoning in 2016 — 8.8 percent of kids tested — including one ZIP code where 22 percent were found to have lead poisoning.
Data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services show children are being sickened by lead in counties from Manistee to Hillsdale and St. Clair, though the rates of lead poisoning in Flint continue to improve.
Just 1.8 percent tested positive for lead poisoning in Genesee County, where hundreds of Flint children were exposed to lead-tainted water after the city switched its water source in 2014.
High blood lead levels can lead to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a common problem nationwide in cities that have large numbers of homes built before 1978, when lead-based paints were banned from use in housing.
Under federal guidelines, medical intervention is recommended for children 6 and younger who have blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter.
Statewide, the percentage of children tested who were found to have elevated blood levels increased from 3.4 percent in 2015 to 3.6 percent last year. It was the state’s first increase, according to records dating back to 1998.
Jackson County had the second highest rate of lead poisoning, with high blood lead levels in 7.6 percent of children tested. Calhoun and St. Joseph counties tied for third highest rate, at 6.4 percent. In Wayne County outside of Detroit, 2.1 percent of kids tested had elevated blood lead levels.
A 2016 Detroit Health Department study found a link between lead poisoning and housing demolitions in the city, where 93 percent of homes were built before 1978, according to city data, and first reported Tuesday by Bridge magazine. The risk was most significant for kids who live within 200 feet of a demolition, especially those that occur between May and September.
Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the Detroit Health Department director, said reducing lead exposure is a top health priority in the city, where the lead poisoning rate increased from 7.5 percent in 2015. Detroit’s lead poisoning rate decreased by half between 2009 and 2015.
“Quite frankly, it’s really because of the old housing stocks that Detroit has,” Khaldun said. “Most kids who are getting exposed to lead ... are getting exposed through lead paint in their homes, and so we’ve really been trying to focus on primary prevention.”