Bills seek to help detect lead poisoning in children sooner

Public health advocates say a package of bills moving through the state House could protect children and adults from lead exposure by building on recent laws mandating universal lead testing and requiring drinking water filters for all schools and childcare centers.

“As a package, these lead bills will continue to move the needle on preventing lead poisoning in Michigan,” Mary Sue Schottenfels, a consultant for the Detroit Lead Parent Advisory Group and Ecology Center, said in a statement. 

The bills would allow for earlier detection of lead poisoning in children by lowering the definition of elevated lead levels, known as the blood lead reference value, based on the 97.5th percentile of the blood lead distribution in U.S. children ages 1–5 years.

The legislation would also automatically refer children whose blood exceeds the value to the state’s EarlyOn program, which supports children with developmental delays. Another bill would make housing safer by requiring contractors in older homes to take lead safety training. 

The blood lead reference value has continuously declined over the years; the Center for Disease Control set it at 10 µg/dL in 1998, then dropped it to 5 µg/dL after the Flint water crisis.  In 2021, the CDC lowered the value from 5.0 μg/dL to 3.5 μg/dL, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services adopted that value. The new law will codify that value into state law.

MDHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin told Planet Detroit that provisional state data for 2023 shows that 5,168 Michigan children had elevated blood lead levels, with 1,338 of those in Detroit. This marked an increase from the previous year’s total of 4,013, a change Sutfin said was influenced by the lower testing threshold and a return to widespread testing after a downturn during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts say early detection of lead poisoning is crucial because children’s brains develop rapidly between ages one and three. Childhood lead exposure can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior difficulties and speech and hearing problems.

Lead protection measures may be especially critical in Detroit, where 90% of homes were built before 1980. Lead-based paint, the most common source of lead poisoning in children, wasn’t banned in housing until 1978.

Melissa Cooper-Sargent, an environmental health advocate with the nonprofit Ecology Center, told Planet Detroit that one bill in the package, HB 5368, could help detect lead exposure earlier by lowering the threshold for what counts as an elevated blood lead level. This would codify into law the threshold from 5 micrograms per deciliter to 3.5 µg/dL, the standard already set by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and MDHHS.

“The sooner we can detect a kid has been exposed to lead, the sooner that action can be taken,” Cooper-Sargent said. For example, a child who had a blood lead level just above 3.5 µg/dL might previously not have been referred for special care while continuing to be exposed to lead contamination.

Experts say the new blood lead levels will likely lead to more lead poisoning cases in the state. HB 5369 could help deal with this issue by automatically referring children to the state’s EarlyOn program, which works with families to promote the healthy development of infants and toddlers.

Meanwhile, HB 4532 may prevent lead exposure by bringing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renovation, Repair and Painting Program (RRP) under state control and requiring this training for all contractors working in pre-1978 homes. This lead safety program is separate from the more complex Lead Abatement Firm certification and is designed to guide contractors who may be disturbing lead paint during their work.

Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, who sponsored the bill, told the House Health Policy Committee that much of the conversation around lead has focused on water because of problems like the Flint water crisis, but that lead paint and dust are more important exposure routes.

“(T)here continues to be a lot of confusion and misalignment of our responses…significantly more children, are poisoned as a result of lead dust in their homes than are poisoned as a result of exposure to lead through water systems,” she said.

Schottenfels said shifting oversight of the RRP program to the state was important because it has more local capacity than the federal government to ensure contractors are taking the program and that this could impact Detroit.

“The RRP Bill can go a long way toward helping families make sure that when contractors work in their homes that they’re doing it in a lead safe manner,” she told Planet Detroit.

However, Schottenfels cautioned that a lot could change with the bill package as it works its way through the state House and Senate.

Erika Farley, with the Rental Property Owners Association of Michigan, told the House committee her group opposed the renovation and repair bill because it would extend the time the state health department has to issue violations under the public health code’s lead abatement section from 180 days to 5 years and raise the cost of compliance, among other concerns.

But, Hood said, those costs are small compared to the cost of a lead-poisoned child.

“When we compare that cost compared to the cost of dealing with the developmental delays or the health issues, this is a bargain,” Hood said.

This article first appeared on Planet Detroit and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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