Getting the lead out
Successful program that protects Detroit kids is now in jeopardy
Published: March 6, 2013
Lead has been linked to poor school performance among Detroit children. City researchers found that children with higher lead levels were more likely to need special education, and, as blood lead levels went up, students’ math, reading and writing scores dropped, according to a 2010 study. Children with blood lead levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter also are more likely to be arrested later in life, according to a 2008 study by the University of Cincinnati.
Poorer children consistently have higher levels of lead. But, even controlling for income and other factors, black children still have blood levels 50 percent higher than other races, Lanphear said. Research suggests black children metabolize the metal differently. That magnifies the problem in places such as Detroit, which is 83 percent black.
Not too long before the CDC adopted a more stringent threshold, the agency severely cut its lead prevention funding, which Detroit and other cities have heavily relied on. In this fiscal year, it was slashed from $30 million to $2 million.
Thompson of Wayne State University said the lack of money has “halted lead services in their tracks” in Detroit.
“The CDC has pulled back big-time, and at the same time the city is still suffering from the financial crisis, and the tax base is hit because people are leaving,” he said.
Schottenfels said almost all of the money in Detroit to fight lead — about $1 million annually — came from the CDC. “With current funding, the effort to stop this problem is in dire straits,” she said.
Milwaukee is fighting the same battle, said Paul Biedrzycki, director of disease control and environmental health at the Milwaukee Health Department.
“We are trying to do more with less,” Biedrzycki said in an emailed response. He said the department does not currently have the resources to inspect homes of children with elevated lead levels.
Research shows that lead prevention more than pays for itself.
“Each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17-$221 or a net savings of $181-$269 billion,” according to a 2009 study by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan economic think tank in Washington D.C.
Lanphear said most people point to vaccines as the most cost effective public health spending programs, and their cost benefit ratio is typically $1 spent for every $16 saved.
“So reducing child exposure appears to be more cost beneficial than what we tout as the most cost beneficial program we currently have,” he said.
The benefits of Detroit’s lead prevention work aren’t hard for Renee Thomas to see. Her tidy home stands out in her working-class neighborhood with its fresh paint and new porch and windows.
After she moved in, she had all four children, ages 6, 8, 10 and 12, tested for lead. None had elevated levels. But she still keeps a lead prevention pamphlet handy and uses a new vacuum designed to minimize dust.
“I feel much better — now they can play anywhere,” Thomas said.
Brian Bienkowski is a staff writer for Environmental Health News, the nonprofit news organization that produced this story. It is part of a series titled “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color.” Send comments to email@example.com.
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