The biggest moment in 45 years to end lead poisoning has arrived
Lloyd's hair stopped growing. Then it began to fall out. Dirt-like spots appeared on his feet. He was five then, learning to read and paint and make friends.
So, Lloyd's grandma, TaNiccia Henry, took Lloyd to the doctor and requested a lead test. With the prick of a finger, she found out Lloyd had lead levels seven times over what's legally safe. Although, as Henry will tell you, no amount of lead really is.
The source of the poisoning turned out to be Henry's 100-year-old house in Detroit's Boston-Edison neighborhood. Lead was grinded into the paint, mixed into the dust, maybe even caked in the yard's dirt. Lloyd had been inadvertently eating it for much of his life. Trace a hand across a side table, wipe it absently across the mouth, and lead infiltrates the body.
With a regimented diet, specialized house cleaning, and a watchful family, the lead in Lloyd's blood has dropped to near nonexistence, but the damage has been done. He's fallen behind his peers in math and reading and comprehension. Henry worries about how lead might impact him in the future: kidney problems, shortened attention spans, unchecked impulse control.
"Realistically, I know this is going to be a lifelong problem, and I'm going to have to work extremely hard with him to make sure he hopefully lives a normal life," she said of Lloyd. "Had he been tested at 1, 2, 3, 4, maybe it would've been better."
Lead paint has been banned in products like paint for 45 years, and the rate and intensity of lead poisoning in children has dropped because of it. But problems persist. Lloyd's story encapsulates some of the worst.
The median age of a Michigan home is almost 50 years old, leaving many potentially poisonous with lead, like Henry's. Some of these homes have been bought or rented by dozens of families since construction. Few of these families get their children tested for lead they don't know to, and Medicaid is the only major healthcare program that requires such tests.
Lloyd himself was only tested because Henry knew to ask. But the onus should not be on the parents. Lead poisoning's effects on the body and mind are myriad. They do not immediately surface after poisoning, nor are they easily spotted and connected to lead. The worst of Lloyd's lead poisoning effects could have been averted if he had been regularly tested when he was much younger.
"A lot of people think that lead is an issue for poor people," said Henry, a longtime Ford Motor Company employee. "No, it's not. It's not. At one point in time, I made very good money, and lead is still an issue, no matter how you do it. It knows no boundaries."
Henry, who has since become the leader of the Detroit Lead Advocacy Parent Group, knows the issues all too well. But she also knows how to limit them: get all children tested for lead and make the repair and renovation of lead-laden homes safer and more convenient.
It's why she and the over 200 other members of the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes—the state's leading lead poisoning prevention coalition which is organized by the Michigan Environmental Council—are closely watching two bills in the Michigan Legislature. If made law, they could make the biggest difference in ending lead poisoning in 45 years.
Under legislation by Sen. John Cherry (D-Flint), all Michigan toddlers would be tested for lead, regardless of what healthcare plan they're on. The tests would be added to a child's regular checkup routine—just like an immunization. If lead is detected, treatment would be given and testing would increase.
If this bill was law just a few years ago, Lloyd would have been tested and treated at his most critical time of childhood development, not just when his mom changed healthcare plans.
The second piece of legislation, this one by Rep. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), would bring the federal Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule into state control. This law requires building contractors to be trained and certified in lead safety practices as they repair and renovate old homes, but the federal program's underfunding and divided attention has left few certified. State control would get more workers trained, who would then increase the amount of safe work done on lead-laden homes, keeping more children out of harm's way.
If this bill became law a few years ago, families like Lloyd would have had an easier time finding work to make their poisoned homes safer.
Both Rep. Hood's and Sen. Cherry's legislation was introduced in past years. Since then, thousands more children have developed lead poisoning.
What makes this year different? The Michigan Legislature now has a pro-public health majority, and the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes is capitalizing on the critical moment at hand—the policies have long been, after all, two of the Alliance's biggest priorities.
But these bills will not become law on their own. That's why healthcare workers, contractors, concerned parents, and child raisers helped bring our state closer to being free of lead poisoning. They took part in two Lead Education Day events, hosted by the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes, in May 2023. They spoke with lawmakers about lead poisoning and its solutions ahead of the first set of hearings for the univeral lead testing legislation.
Join the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes
Each year, around 4,000 Michigan children are diagnosed with lead poisoning. Many more are likely poisoned but untested. We can't let this moment pass by. We must make stories like Lloyd's and Henry's moments in history, not current reality.
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