The Need for Universal Lead Testing

September 9, 2022
Categories: Hazards

OPINION: All Michigan children should be tested for lead at one and two years of age

By Victoria Patton, Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan

At Healthy Homes Coalition, we advocate for universal lead testing, lead paint removal & correction, and continuing knowledge of lead poisoning. You should ask for your child to be tested for lead every year, up to age 3, and yearly up to age 5 if lead hazards are present in home. If your child’s test returns with any number above zero, take action. If you live in Kent County, you can call Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan for a home environmental hazards screening, which can identify causes of lead poisoning and remove the hazards through case management. 

Lead poisoning can slow down growth and development, cause hearing and speech difficulties, lower IQ, cause reduction of lifetime earnings and even cause higher rates of incarceration. Babies and toddlers are highly exposed to lead because they ingest the lead-contaminated dust and soil; they explore their world by placing their hands, toys, and other objects in their mouths. Each year, thousands of children go untreated for lead poisoning because their elevated blood levels go undetected. In Michigan, 4,124 children had been lead poisoned in 2018 (Michigan CLPPP Annual Report) but, only one in four Michigan kids under age six even gets tested.

Thankfully, two Michigan House Bills–4678 and 4679–seek to increase identification of lead poisoned children by requiring lead testing to be a part of a minor’s immunization record. These bills call for testing children when they are most vulnerable to the effects of lead and also most highly exposed. Ten states and Washington D.C. require universal testing of all children for lead. In these states, testing rates are more than double Michigan’s state average. 

Healthy Homes’ Get the Lead Out Coordinator, Jackie Hernandez says, “lead was not something we ever talked about in my family. We didn’t know that it could be in the soil or paint.” Her home was in a neighborhood she would later learn was highly impacted by lead poisoning. In 2019, 3% of children were identified as lead poisoned. If the rate of 3% lead poisoning is applied to all Michigan children under five years, there would be more than 15,000 unidentified lead-poisoned kids in the state. Without identifying the elevated blood lead levels, these children will continue to be poisoned by their own homes and show symptoms that could be attributed to a plethora of other common childhood ailments. Once the elevated blood lead level is identified, organizations like Healthy Homes Coalition can intervene and eliminate the housing hazards. 

Four out of five homes in Grand Rapids were built before 1978, the year lead was banned from paint. In these older homes, the lead paint had been peeling off the old windows, siding, and doors and creating paint chips, lead dust, and contaminated soil. Black and Latino neighborhoods were hit hard by this environmental injustice. These groups have historically been withheld from obtaining resources that are needed to be healthy and are disproportionately exposed to a combination of health risks such as poverty, violence, poor neighborhood conditions, and environmental health hazards (APHA, Advancing Health Equity.) 

One Kent County resident had a child who tested positive for an elevated blood lead level and contacted the Healthy Homes Coalition for next steps. “I learned where my kids were getting exposed, in the soil at [a caregiver’s] home,” the client explained. “Since then, we’ve put down a protective barrier to reduce exposure. Healthy Homes also helped me use safer cleaning products and lead-safe cleaning practices.” Because there are so many potential exposure risks, it’s important to identify where the hazards lie. The client went on, “I didn’t know the many ways kids could get exposed to lead. I thought it was only through eating lead paint chips, but I learned things like the importance of using cold tap water, then heating, as opposed to using warm tap water [that could disturb lead in the pipes.]” When asked if there is any advice she would give to other parents, she answered, “I definitely suggest testing your home and soil for lead. Have your child get tested for lead so you can take all the necessary precautions. Lead can be in so many places, and it’s not talked about as much anymore so it’s important to educate yourself.”

It’s time for Michigan to get the lead out of kids, but we need universal testing to find it. We need the state legislature to pass HB 4678 and 4679.

Victoria Patton, (she/her)
Kent County resident and parent
Intake Specialist                    
Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan