Safeguarding Public Health
Ending childhood lead poisoning in Michigan. It’s one of MEC’s boldest goals. It’s also entirely achievable. Although it will take years to get there, MEC accelerated our progress toward that end in 2014, led by our Health Policy Director Tina Reynolds. In a year of belt-tightening in Lansing, Tina and her partners in the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH) successfully advocated for a $500,000 increase in state funding to protect children from lead hazards. It was a significant boost to the $1.25 million we secured in the previous budget year, which made 122 homes lead-safe for Michigan families.
When Tina made preventing lead poisoning an MEC priority a few years ago, many lawmakers she met with didn’t realize it was still a problem. In reality, more than 70 percent of homes in our state—in urban, rural and suburban areas—were built before the 1978 ban on lead paint. More than 5,000 Michigan children under six years old have tested positive for lead poisoning—and most of our at-risk kids aren’t even tested. Half of children in Detroit Public Schools have a history of lead poisoning.
The heartbreaking irony is that some of children’s most innocent behaviors—sucking their thumbs, putting their fingers in mouths after crawling across the floor, pulling themselves up on a window sill—can have serious, lifelong consequences. Lead poisoning causes brain damage linked to lost IQ, learning difficulties, aggressive behavior, memory loss and other symptoms. Research shows lead-poisoned children are seven times more likely than average to drop out of high school, six times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system and 50 percent more likely to do poorly on standardized tests.
We have worked to build momentum for ending lead poisoning with unflashy but tried-and-true tactics. We led regular meetings of MIALSH to keep the coalition strong, growing and focused. We met with dozens of lawmakers, many of them during our MIALSH Lead Education Day, which brought impacted families to the Capitol to show lawmakers the human face of this issue. And we used our blog, newsletter, social media and relationships with reporters to help educate and energize the public.
Thanks to MEC’s generous supporters and dedicated partners, our state leaders are beginning to understand the scope of the problem. They’re beginning to see that spending millions of dollars to solve a problem that costs our state more than $4 billion every year is the definition of a wise investment. And that figure doesn’t begin to count the deep suffering we can save Michigan families by putting lead poisoning in Michigan’s rearview mirror.
Bringing fresh local foods to underserved communities
MEC helped the American Heart Association (AHA) develop a state policy initiative to attract grocery stores to underserved communities and encourage convenience store owners to provide fresh local foods in areas where healthy options are scarce. Working with AHA and our partners in the Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan coalition—and leveraging Tina’s role as chair of that coalition’s Healthy Food Access policy action team—we play a lead role in building the broad support needed to bring this Healthy Food Financing Initiative to fruition.
Keeping schools out of toxic sites
We have also ramped up our focus on ensuring that Michigan schools are healthy places for our children to learn. University of Michigan research has shown that students are more likely to miss school and score poorly on tests if their school is located in areas with high levels of air pollution.
Unfortunately, Michigan has no rules to prevent schools from being built near sources of industrial pollution. Researchers from U-M invited MEC to lend our policy expertise to help develop guidelines for safe school siting. When that’s finished, we’ll urge policymakers to put rules on the books that keep our kids safe when they’re at school.
Connecting environmental and public health advocates
We have also worked with MEC member group the Ecology Center to strengthen ties between environmental advocates and the public health community. Doctors and nurses see firsthand the impact of environmental hazards on their patients, and policymakers see those medical professionals as trusted messengers. By partnering with health leaders and building their capacity as advocates, we will increase our ability to achieve positive change on issues like clean energy, lead poisoning prevention and asthma awareness.
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