Lead Poisoning in Detroit

Lead poisoning is sometimes called the silent killer. It seems a fitting name for a substance that has destroyed the lives of millions of people across the country and tens of thousands in Detroit, often without them realizing it until it is too late. Young children are most vulnerable because they can ingest high levels of lead into their bloodstream at an early age, before the blood- brain barrier has developed in their anatomy. Once a child is contaminated by lead, it thwarts the body’s capacity to absorb the mineral iron which is crucial to brain, nerve and bone development. Lead also interferes with the body’s ability to process information from chemical transmitters, diminishing hearing, sight, and learning ability. Moreover lead poisoning is linked to hyperactivity and violent anti-social behavior.

According to Donele Wilkins, founder of the grass roots organization, ‘Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.’ “Among children Detroit has two thirds of the known lead poisoning cases in Michigan. The entire city of Detroit has been designated a brown field site because we have between 40 and 60 thousand parcels of contaminated land inside the city, and most of the hot spots are located on the East side of the city of Detroit.”

The Michigan State Health Department started gathering data on lead poisoning from tests on children in 1997. And although lead poisoning is usually thought to come from lead based paint in older homes, some authorities estimate that there is more of it in the ground than on the walls. There is also disagreement among experts about the level in which lead in the blood stream should be considered harmful, and over the decades the tolerance bar has gradually been lowered. In the 1950’s the consensus was that 60 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood was acceptable. Today the danger level is 10 micrograms per deciliter with some saying that it should be lowered even further to 5. In fact there are many scientists and physicians who maintain that any level of lead in the human blood stream can be harmful.

Smelter sites and industrial sized incinerators are also a huge source of lead contamination, scattering thousands of pounds of it into Detroit’s environment annually. In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency provided $700,000 to clean Consolidated Smelting Corporation, located on the East side of Detroit. Since then an additional 3 million has been granted to clean up the area. Earlier tests had shown that 2 pounds of lead was being released from the smelting smokestack every hour which is four times the amount allowed by regulations in Australia. Recently the E.P.A. opened an office near the area and efforts are ongoing to clean up the site, but the process is far from complete and the exact number of other contaminated sites are unknown.

Since 1993 Detroit has received 8.1 million dollars to help to reduce the lead in the city, and approximately 15 million in federal and state funds have been earmarked for areas throughout Michigan. Many believe these amounts to be grossly inadequate , especially in a huge metropolis like Detroit where in some neighborhoods a fifth of children showed signs of high levels of lead in their bodies and where instances of lead poisoning are particularly high in Black, Hispanic and Arab communities prompting the usage of the phrase, toxic waste and race.

“By the time the kids were tested it was so bad that my three year old had a lead level over 39,” said Detroiter Angela Lockett. “My son Dennis ,who is two, had a level over 44. I had to quit working because the children were spending a lot of time in the hospital to be treated to get the lead out of their systems. It was scary to see the x-rays with the big chunks of lead paint chips inside their bodies.”

Information from the Detroit Health Department indicate that lead poisoning is the number one environmental hazard in Detroit, and statistics compiled by the Michigan Department of Community Health show that one in ten Detroit children are in danger of lead poisoning and the majority of Michigan’s lead poisoned children live in Detroit. Regardless of these alarming figures, lead poisoning still appears to be a low priority issue in the city. “From the public standpoint its out of sight out of mind,” said State Representative Steve Tobocman. The term silent killer is very apt. Most people don’t make the connection with lead and their children getting sick. And politicians often pick things that they can deliver and be identified with and get the credit for, like building new roads or stadiums.