You might be asking yourself, “Is lead still a problem?” The short answer is yes, but it’s important to note today’s concern is not the same as a decade ago.
Last year, 551 children birth to 5 years of age in Kent County were identified as having lead in their blood above the safety levels established by the Centers for Disease Control. Ten years ago, only 262 children were above the CDC’s level of concern. So what happened?
In response to a wealth of scientific evidence, the CDC lowered the reference level in late 2011 by cutting it in half — to five micrograms per deciliter of blood lead content. So the reality is, by today’s standard, there were 3,187 children identified as having high lead levels 10 years ago. Last year’s 551 kids actually represent an 83 percent decrease in the number. That’s still 551 kids too many.
In 2011, the CDC was responding to scientific evidence that shifted the focus from the acute, clinical effects of lead poisoning on kids to the long-term impact on cognitive development. Instead of focusing on kidney failure, encephalopathy and the like, the new reference level focuses on the long-term impact on a child’s ability to read, pay attention and behave.
The impact of that shift is perhaps no better captured than through the independent work of the University of Michigan Risk Sciences Center as published in a June 2014 report, “Economic Impacts Of Lead Exposure and Remediation in Michigan.” It talks about the yearly economic impact of childhood lead poisoning and looks at that impact in four areas.
The total cost of lead poisoning each year, according to the report, is a stunning $330 million. One might think that the biggest economic impact would be in health care. But of the $330 million total, health care expenses are a little more than $18 million, or 5 percent. Special education only adds another $2.5 million. So where is the cost?
Lead has been clearly linked to crime and justice. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a history of lead poisoning is greater in the prison population. And while more than $2 billion is spent each year on correction in Michigan, the cost attributed to childhood lead poisoning is only $73 million.
The big-ticket item is the decreased lifetime earnings of lead-poisoned children, estimated at $206 million.
While lead poisoning still has health impacts, it just might be more important in today’s age to look at lead poisoning as a brain drain that will stifle the economy by impacting the future Michigan workforce. Children who are lead poisoned are denied their full potential, including the ability to be a valued employee and a contributing worker.
In the end, lead poisoning is really an economic development problem — or in today’s jargon, a talent problem.
So what are we to do? If you're a parent, you want to make sure your children’s environment is lead-safe. As much as 90 percent of childhood lead poisoning is attributed to lead-based paint in the home and contaminated soil. The house needs to be checked, and if necessary repaired. There is help available at GetTheLeadOutGR.com. To double-check that your child is safe, consult with your child’s pediatrician about blood lead testing at your child’s 12- and 24-month well child visits.
Government has a role to play too. Beyond offering relief programs to help parents and landlords fix lead hazards in their homes, government can gain the cooperation of landlords, childcare centers and others who shelter children through reasoned regulation. Government can also provide the public health surveillance necessary to solve a problem like lead poisoning by making sure children are tested. Counties like Kent County that are testing children in WIC are seeing improved data that drives improved outcomes. Other Michigan counties should follow suit.
As an economic development problem, employers need to join the fight. If the key to an improved economy is job creation, employers should demand that government invest in tomorrow’s talent. If childhood lead poisoning is stripping away $206 million in lifetime earnings each year, employers need to form the public will to plug the leak in the bucket. As evidenced by the U-M report, investing in childhood lead poisoning prevention is one public health investment that clearly pays dividends for the economy and business.
Today’s childhood lead poisoning is not the same set of problems that concerned us a generation ago. We know more today than we knew then. The old truism still fits. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Paul Haan is executive director of Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.