By JOSHUA BENDER
Capital News Service
LANSING – While the lead in Flint’s water captures plenty of attention, another source of the deadly element also threatens Michigan cities and neighborhoods.
The demolition of older homes and buildings releases lead into the air, threatening the health of those who live and work near these demolition sites, said Tina Reynolds, health policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, a Lansing -based coalition of environmental advocacy groups. The lead is contained in old paint and some building materials.
“Any structure demolished that is pre-1978 would definitely still have lead dust and be an exposure pathway to the community,” she said.
In 2014, that included 64.8 percent of Michigan homes, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The risk of exposure worsens during the summer, Reynolds said. “In the summer people leave their windows open and kids play outside.”
Urban children are at greater risk. “People live closer together and the buildings being demolished are generally more numerous and larger in size in cities,” she said.
“But any demolished buildings with lead put the people living near those buildings at risk.”
In addition to lead released into the air by demolitions, other sources include lead dust from the paint that can be spread by opening and closing windows, said Gilda Jacobs, chief executive officer of the Michigan League for Public Policy, a Lansing-based anti-poverty advocacy group.
And children eat lead paint chips.
The good news is that the proportion of Michigan’s children testing positive for harmful levels of lead in their blood plummeted from 17.2 percent in 2005 to 3.5 percent in 2014, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That still meant 24,884 children under age 6 had levels of lead in their blood that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are harmful.
These decreases are due to increased awareness of the health risks posed by lead, state public health experts said.
“There was a lot of investment put into lead poisoning prevention in Michigan and across the U.S. in the mid-2000s,” said Eden Wells, a physician and chief medical executive at the Department of Health and Human Services. Investments often centered on health safety education and preventing lead exposure.
The lead levels have also been reduced by removal of lead from paint and gasoline, said Jennifer Eisner, a public information officer for the department.
But while the levels have dropped, so too, have the levels considered to be hazardous. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the amount of lead in child’s blood deemed safe, she said. “Even low levels of lead in blood can affect IQ, behavior and academic development.”
Physicians are now given a set of guidelines for detecting and treating toxic lead exposure in young children, she said. Young children enrolled in Medicaid or certain food assistance programs are now required to be tested for lead.
Continuing to reduce lead exposure levels is a long and expensive task, Wells said. “Lead is everywhere in our environment.”
In addition to lead’s pervasiveness, it also has remarkable staying power because it is an element, Reynolds said. “It does not erode or disappear over time.”
Much of what goes into determining if a soon-to-be-demolished building contains hazardous materials such as lead is done by demolition companies, said DeLores Montgomery, the hazardous waste section chief for the Department of Environmental Quality.
Such companies found in violation of state regulations can face criminal charges and up to $25,000 a day in fines, she said. The amount varies case by case and is determined by the degree of negligence.
Jacobs said rental property owners are given substantial self-regulating ability on lead issues. “A landlord only has to say there is no known lead problem before they rent a property out — they don’t have to conduct any sort of testing.”
Reynolds said the decision to demolish older, vacant buildings is understandable. Vacant buildings attract criminals and create fire hazards, “but people need to know there are risks.”
By JOSHUA BENDER