Largely due to new laws, cleanup efforts and a diminished population, the number of children in Detroit with elevated lead levels has fallen dramatically over the past several years. Image: Flickr/Bridgette Wynn
DETROIT – When Renee Thomas moved into her two-story home two years ago, she had no idea it posed a hidden threat to her four children.
But a new city law forced her landlord to check the century-old house for lead contamination. Old, deteriorating paint had left lead dust on its windows, floors and porch. Through a patchwork of grants and city partnerships, the contamination was cleaned up.
“They kept cleaning the floors … cleaning them over and over again,” Thomas said. “It was in the windows, in the doors and on the railing going upstairs. They replaced all of that.”
Armed with new laws, paintbrushes and industrial vacuums, Detroit over the past few years has declared war on the toxic metal that has long plagued its neighborhoods. And it appears to be winning.
The number of Detroit children with lead levels exceeding a newly revised federal guideline has dropped more than 70 percent, from about 10,000 kids to 2,900 since 2004. Experts say a new emphasis on cleanup or demolition of homes, a shrinking population and stricter city landlord laws have spurred the improvement.
Similar drops in lead poisoning have occurred in other Rust Belt cities, including Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee.
“Over the past 12 years, there’s been a push to get rapid intervention for kids exposed, abatement in contaminated homes and enforcement for landlords,” said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies.
Nevertheless, the number of children with elevated lead levels in Detroit and these other cities remains much higher than the national average, and low-income people of color are most at risk. More than 10 percent of Detroit children 6 years old and younger still exceed a lead guideline set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year.
Making matters worse, federal funding for local programs has been slashed, threatening the progress made in Detroit and other cities.
“The problem is slowly going away,” said Robert Scott, an analyst with the Michigan Department of Community Health. “But we want the number to be zero.”
Low levels of lead affect children’s IQs, their ability to pay attention and how well they do in school, according to the CDC. It also has been linked to violent and antisocial behavior.
Cities in the industrial Midwest historically have high rates of lead poisoning because they have a lot of old housing built before 1978, when lead was banned in paints. About 94 percent of Detroit’s homes pre-dates 1980, compared with 58 percent nationally, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Experts agree that indoor dust is the major source of exposure. But these cities also had lead smelter sites and other factories that generated lead dust. Randy Raymond, a geographic information specialist with Detroit Public Schools, mapped the city's problem areas for lead and found that most were near former car and battery manufacturing plants. And new research suggests that in the summer, when Detroit children spend more time outdoors, their lead levels spike because contaminated dirt is kicked up by winds and held in the air by humidity.
A coalition of researchers, medical professionals, community organizations and government agencies known as the Detroit Lead Partnership has spearheaded much of the city’s progress in cleaning up lead contamination, Scott said.