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Lead poisoning endangers generations of Detroit children, with no end in sight

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In 2007, inspectors found an alarming amount of lead in the soil at Bridgeview Park in the shadow of the sprawling Marathon Oil refinery in Southwest Detroit. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • In 2007, inspectors found an alarming amount of lead in the soil at Bridgeview Park in the shadow of the sprawling Marathon Oil refinery in Southwest Detroit.

This is the third in a series of stories exploring environmental racism in Michigan. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

By the time Tamika Phillips found out what was afflicting her only child, he was 7 years old, frail, and hopelessly behind in school. He struggled with basic vocabulary, had explosive temper tantrums, and was forced to repeat first grade. Phillips thought she had done everything to protect her child. What did I do wrong? she asked herself.

Heartbroken and worried, she took him to a pediatrician, who suggested a lead test.

The results were alarming. His blood lead level was 20 micrograms per deciliter, which is four times the federal threshold for an elevated level. Lead is highly toxic to the brain, nervous system, and other organs, especially in infants and young children. Even at low levels, lead is linked to reduced IQ, ADHD, irreversible brain damage, classroom problems, and even criminality and poverty. Lead can also cause headaches, hearing loss, and hyperactive behavior.

There is no safe level of lead, and even a small amount can cause irreversible damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what," Phillips tells Metro Times, agreeing to talk on condition that her child's name not be published because of the stigma attached to lead poisoning. "He's a sweet boy, but he struggles a lot."

At the time, Phillips, a single mother scraping by on a part-time job, was renting a small, run-down house on Detroit's east side for $550 a month. Inspectors found flaking, peeling lead paint throughout the house. When her landlord refused to remove the lead, she and her son moved out.

Three years later, Phillips and her son, now 10, live in a lead-free house in the suburbs with her new husband. But her son still struggles in school, and he's often inattentive and disagreeable at home and has trouble forming friendships.

"I worry about him, and I feel guilty" for not getting him tested sooner, she says. "I just didn't know that much about lead."

Although lead poisoning is not as pervasive as it was two decades ago, it's still a serious public health threat that disproportionately affects Black children. About 1,500 kids under the age of 6 in Detroit test positive for elevated levels of lead every year, far more than any other city or county in the state. Of those tested, about 7% are diagnosed with lead poisoning, which is nearly three times the state average.

The real number of lead-poisoned children in Detroit is likely much higher because only about a third of the city's kids under the age of 6 are tested. Despite the ever-present dangers of lead in Detroit, fewer children are getting tested than a decade ago. In 2019, 32.8% of the city's children under 6 were tested, compared to 48.1% in 2010, according to state data.

Health experts warn that many children who go untested won't receive the help they need to avoid irreversible damage to their brains and nervous systems. And because lead is cumulative, it can build up in the child's bloodstream, making the potential symptoms far more devastating.

"There are thousands and thousands of kids who have never been tested in Detroit and are living in houses with lead in them," Lyke Thompson, a lead-poisoning expert and director of the Center of Urban Studies at Wayne State University, tells Metro Times. "We need to protect these children."

More than 20,000 vacant houses create blight in Detroit. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • More than 20,000 vacant houses create blight in Detroit.

Lurking inside homes

With more than 100,000 homes built before lead paint was outlawed in 1978, exposure to the toxic metal is pervasive. Paint dust and chips are the primary causes of lead poisoning. Lead is also found in aging water pipes and contaminated soil near industrial polluters.

In Detroit, where 79% of the residents are Black, about 91% of the homes were built before the 1978 lead ban, compared to 65.5% statewide, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. With the highest poverty rate among big cities in the U.S., many of Detroit's roughly 59,000 children under the age of 6 are trapped in toxic houses.

Of the 10 ZIP codes in Michigan where more than 10% of children tested positive for lead poisoning in 2018, eight are in Detroit. They are 48203 (11.4%), 48204 (14%), 48206 (18%), 48211 (12.7%), 48213 (12.5%), 48214 (14.3%), 48215 (10.6%), and 48238 (12.5%). Those ZIP codes are among the poorest in Detroit, with a higher-than-average number of houses built before 1978, according to a Metro Times analysis.

"By far, the real critical source of lead in Detroit is lead paint in old houses," Thompson says. "The major sources from the lead dust come from inside the house on the walls, windows, and doors. There is lead paint on the outside of houses, as well."

Children are often poisoned by ingesting dust from lead-laden paint chips on windowsills, door frames, walls, and porches. Closing a window or door, for example, can send microscopic dust particles swirling around a house before covering the floor, where children often play.

"Approximately 90 percent of all elevated blood lead levels results from lead paint dust and surrounding soil in those aging homes," Denise Fair, chief public health officer for the city of Detroit, said in a statement.

Just a small amount of lead paint can cause a lifetime of problems. Recent research reveals that lead has a far more devastating impact on IQs and academic achievement than previously believed.

"A lead-paint chip no larger than a fingernail can send a toddler into a coma and death," medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington writes in her 2019 book, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind. "One-tenth of that amount will lower his IQ." A five-point drop in a child's IQ impairs a child's ability to learn, reduces test scores, and causes disruptive classroom behavior, Washington said, citing recent research.

Using data from Detroit Public Schools, researchers in 2013 demonstrated how elevated lead levels diminish academic performance. Children who were poisoned with lead before they turned 6 performed disproportionately poorly on math, science, and reading tests in grades 3, 5, and 8. The higher their blood lead level, the worse they performed on standardized tests.

"Despite a dramatic decline in blood lead concentrations, childhood lead poisoning continues to be the most important and preventable environmental problem among children and contributes significantly to the burden of childhood diseases," researchers wrote in the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study also found that children with elevated levels of blood "are more inattentive, hyperactive, disorganized, aggressive, and more likely to be delinquent."

Removing lead is expensive

Eradicating lead from houses is no easy feat and could take decades, leaving thousands of Detroit children at risk. Experts believe tens of thousands of homes in Detroit are still infested with lead. Wayne State's Center for Urban Studies used lead swabs to measure the presence of lead in homes in two ZIP codes with the high rates of lead poisoning — 48214 and 48206. The swabs revealed an alarming rate of lead poisoning in houses — 86.5% in 48214 and 82.6% in 48206, Thompson said.

The cost of removing lead from houses often exceeds the value of the home, making abatement an investment many home owners can't afford. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average cost of lead paint removal ranges from $8 to $15 per square foot, or $9,600 to $30,000 for a 1,200-square-foot house.

The median sales price of an occupied house in Detroit was $43,000 in 2019, according to Realcomp, the state's largest multiple listing service. Last year, the Detroit Land Bank sold more than 2,600 vacant homes, a vast majority of which were built before the lead-paint ban, for an average of $8,350 apiece. Lead abatement could cost three times that.

Because of the exorbitant costs of abatement, only a few hundreds houses are cleared of lead a year — a tiny fraction of the houses that endanger children.

Without sufficient government funding, testing for lead won't solve the problem, activists say.

"Ultimately, there's a limit to what testing can do here. We already know lead paint is ubiquitous in older housing stock and [we] don't need tests to determine whether it's present or not," Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, tells Metro Times. "The question is how well is it being encapsulated and whether it can be remediated. Ultimately, this is a money problem. We have lead paint in an estimated 64 million homes across the country. Who's going to pay for addressing this risk? It's not effective to require landlords to cover this cost because they will pass it on to tenants, which will create a housing affordability issue."

While widespread lead abatement would take an unprecedented public investment, the financial toll of childhood lead exposure is even costlier. Numerous studies show that investing in lead prevention would pay off in dividends, saving lives and hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

The total cost of lead exposure in Michigan is $270 million a year, including $112.5 million at taxpayer expense, when accounting for the increases in health care, crime, and special education, and decline in earnings, according to a 2016 analysis by the Ecology Center and Michigan Network for Children's Environmental Health.

A one-time $600 million investment in lead abatement would save $190 million a year, paying for itself in just over three years.

"The one-year snapshot illustration suggests that abatement is a worthwhile investment economically, in addition to the public health benefits for families whose lead exposure is prevented," the report states. "The case is strengthened when considering the many years, and even potentially generations, of exposure and cost savings beyond one snapshot illustrated."

The public investment in lead prevention is a tiny fraction of what's needed. But Detroit will take what it can get. With a $9.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the city of Detroit began accepting applications in September to finance lead-based paint removal for lower-income residents who live in 48209 in Southwest Detroit, where more than three-quarters of the houses were built before 1940 and 95% were built before the lead-paint ban. The city plans to provide up to $25,000 for each of 455 families with children for the next five years. The city, one of seven nationwide to receive the grant, is contributing $1.2 million.

So far, the grants have funded 11 lead assessments, and four are out to bid.

"It can cost up to $25,000 to properly remediate lead paint from a single house, and that is a cost that is simply unattainable to many Detroiters," Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement. "This program will keep kids safe and families in their homes. Just because a family isn't wealthy doesn't mean they don't deserve a safe house for their child."

In October, HUD also awarded nearly $700,000 in federal funding to Wayne State University's Center for Urban Studies to study ways to protect families from lead exposure. The center is partnering with CLEARCorps Detroit and the Detroit Health Department to determine whether relocating families voluntarily from lead-laden homes — either on a temporary or permanent basis — is a cost-effective solution to protecting children.

"We remain committed to improving the health and wellbeing of all Americans, especially children, by creating safer and healthier homes," HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. "This research will inform HUD and our partners in our efforts to protect families and eliminate housing-related health and safety hazards."

A demolition in Detroit. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • A demolition in Detroit.

Harmed by the blight fight

Researchers also found a troubling link between lead poisoning and Detroit's aggressive blight-removal program. Beginning in 2014, the city embarked on the nation's largest home-demolition program, razing more than 15,000 dilapidated houses. Of those, 93% were built before 1978, according to city data.

At least two studies suggested demolitions spread lead-contaminated dust throughout the city's neighborhoods, poisoning children who live nearby.

A 2017 Detroit Health Department task-force study found that 2.4% of children with elevated lead levels under the age of 6 "may be attributable to demolitions" between 2014 and 2016.

Children living within 400 feet of a demolished house had a 20% higher likelihood of testing positive for elevated levels of lead. The odds increased to 38% when children lived within 400 feet of two or more demolitions.

Another study published in the summer found a link between demolitions and lead poisoning. Examining demolitions between 2014 and 2019, researchers from the University of Michigan and Rutgers University discovered that roughly 13% of children living near two or more demolished houses had elevated lead levels, compared to 8% not living near demolitions.

The percentage of children under the age of 6 who tested positive for lead poisoning rose from 6.9% in 2012 to 8.7% in 2016, the largest increase in years, according to state records.

As a result, the Detroit Health Department established a task force to study the potential link between demolitions and lead poisoning. In February 2017, the group made recommendations to reduce the impact of demolitions on children. Those included notifying neighbors of nearby demolitions, additional training for contractors, inspecting sites to ensure compliance, and conducting air-monitoring.

In 2018, the city also announced it would stop non-emergency demolitions in five ZIP codes with high rates of lead poisoning — 48202, 48204, 48213, and 48214. But it turns out, the city continued razing houses in those areas, performing more than 100 non-emergency demolitions, according to demolition records.

The city declined to comment on the link between lead poisoning and demolitions, referring Metro Times to a health department memo to Detroit City Council.

Fair, the city's top health official, said the city conducted a study in 2018 and 2019 and found no link between demolitions and lead poisoning after "a series of measures were implemented to lower the risks of any possible lead exposure while a more definitive analysis was being undertaken."

That analysis, published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found "no association" between demolitions and elevated levels of lead in children after the preventive measures were taken in 2016 and 2017.

"The City of Detroit took the challenge seriously and successfully addressed it," Fair told council members.

Demolitions will be back in the spotlight after city residents on Nov. 3 approved Proposal N, a ballot initiative to demolish 8,000 dilapidated homes and fix up another 8,000 salvageable houses by selling $250 million worth of bonds. It's not clear what, if any, additional measures will be taken to protect children.

Slumlords linked to lead poisoning

Researchers have also linked lead poisoning to slumlords who purchase tax-foreclosed houses and rent them to unsuspecting tenants with children. In the past 10 years, tens of thousands of Detroit properties have been purchased through the Wayne County tax auction.

"Over the last decade, there was a significant increase in bulk owners in the low-income housing market," researchers Joshua Akers, Alexa Eisenberg, and Eric Seymour wrote in a joint 2020 study by the University of Michigan and Rutgers University. "In a number of cases, these owners milk properties (renting them without renovation or repair) until its dilapidated condition renders it useless. The house is then abandoned to tax foreclosure. Once the city takes possession, the public pays for its demolition."

The researchers traced 16% of the demolitions to properties owned by a "problem investor or speculator in the past decade."

"Children living in homes owned by an investor active in the annual tax foreclosure auction in Detroit are 1.8 times more likely to exhibit elevated blood lead levels that public health experts associate with life-long negative impacts," researchers wrote.

The study recommends a moratorium on the tax foreclosure auction, a move that county and state officials have long resisted. In fact, Wayne County has gone the opposite direction, increasingly selling tax-foreclosed properties in bundles to bulk property owners, placing the homes in the hands of outsiders who rent to lower-income families.

"The auction serves a primary pipeline for bulk buyers to acquire properties," the researchers wrote. "As this report demonstrates, this increases the risk of a child being lead poisoned."

The city of Detroit has significantly ramped up its crackdown on landlords with lead-laden homes. In February, the city sued three major real-estate investors that it dubbed "notorious speculators and slumlords," alleging they purchase blighted, lead-laden homes from the tax auction and then rent them to families.

"Our lawsuits mark the beginning of a new effort to address the grave danger of lead in Detroit, among other housing related issues," Detroit's top attorney Lawrence Garcia said in a statement. "They have demonstrated no respect for the safety of the persons living on their land, and their business model presents an unreasonable danger to the renting public in Detroit. Detroit's citizens deserve better."

The lawsuit accuses the West Bloomfield father-and-son team of Steve and Stephen Hagerman, Michael Kelly of Grosse Pointe Woods, and Salameh Jaser of Dearborn of purchasing more than 1,000 blighted properties and amassing thousand of tickets from city building inspectors, "putting children at risk of lead poisoning."

In 2017, Detroit strengthened its rental ordinance, requiring landlords to register their properties and bring them into compliance. The city also required landlords to obtain a lead-paint inspection and submit a plan to remove lead before they're issued a certificate of compliance.

Before enforcement began in August 2018, 1,100 certificates of compliance had been issued. That number soared to 4,809 as of Nov. 6, mayoral spokesman John Roach tells Metro Times. During that time, the city issued an astounding 12,169 tickets to landlords for improper lead abatements.

The city is also performing regular inspections and stepping up legal action against landlords who rent out lead-laden properties.

Emma Lockridge believes she was poisoned by lead at the playground of the former Jeffries Elementary School in Southwest Detroit. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • Emma Lockridge believes she was poisoned by lead at the playground of the former Jeffries Elementary School in Southwest Detroit.

Tainted soil

Although paint is the most common culprit of lead poisoning, the neurotoxin is also found in soil near industrial facilities. In 2007, inspectors found an alarming amount of lead in the soil at Bridgeview Park in the shadow of the sprawling Marathon Oil refinery in Southwest Detroit. The park was the site of Jeffries Elementary School, which was demolished in 1991. The highest concentrations of lead were found in the ground beneath the playground equipment.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Emma Lockridge, a kidney transplant survivor, attended the school and frequently played on the equipment. She believes that's where she was exposed to high levels of lead, which is known to cause kidney disease in adults. Her sister, who also attended the school, died of kidney failure before the age of 50.

Despite the dangers, children still frolic on the property, gaining access through gaping holes in the fence surrounding the park. There are no signs warning people of the high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil. Some of the playground equipment is still there, rusted and overrun by trees and tall weeds.

"They didn't inform anyone of the lead," Lockridge tells Metro Times. "This is a horror story."

In May 2014, Lockridge was shocked when she spotted men in biohazard suits preparing to plant trees at the park. Despite the community's fear that digging up the soil would spread toxins around a neighborhood already rife with pollution, the Greening of Detroit planted new trees on the property, ostensibly to help remove contamination.

More than six years later, some of the trees are dead or dying. For now, the key to addressing lead exposure is testing and education.

"We do not want any child in Michigan to be exposed to lead," Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, tells Metro Times. "For children and pregnant women, lead exposure is especially dangerous because it can impact a child's developing brain or lead to miscarriages or preterm birth. Parents should talk to their healthcare provider about getting their child a lead test and learn about ways to make their homes lead safe."

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