Lead poisoning is statewide, help is not

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Residents in older houses are exposed to lead dust from paint while opening and closing windows.

Residents in older houses are exposed to lead dust from paint while opening and closing windows.

By Ray Wilbur

Rural communities across the state get less money for lead abatement and education than cities, leaving officials to wonder how much of a priority lead poisoning really is for Michigan.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers a handful of grants each year to provide lead abatement services for residents, but because the competition is so fierce, they go to bigger metropolitan areas.

The state Department of Health and Human Services provides lead services to individual homes if high levels of lead are identified, but it does not provide consistent funding to whole communities.

The state health department recently submitted a request for $23.8 million in additional federal funding for the state, but that money will be used first for Flint and then those areas where lead problems are most concentrated, such as Detroit.

“We have to focus our dollars where it’s needed most,” said Jennifer Eisner, a public information officer for the state  department. “We want to make sure we’re putting our resources where they have the most impact.”

But officials say they are worried about how this process leaves rural areas to essentially fend for themselves with lead problems that can cause a myriad of serious health effects.

“This is about being more strategic about providing resources,” said Tina Reynolds, the health policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council. “There are kids that are lead poisoned statewide, yet there are communities that get more resources than others.”

And while it does make sense for more populated areas to receive more funding, a child in Charlevoix should have the same level of care as a child in Flint, Reynolds said, because lead is everywhere.

The lead in most of the state comes from houses built before 1978 that have lead paint. This is much different than the lead in drinking water that brought international attention to Flint.

Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit have secured federal grants but they last only for three years. Cities can’t apply for grants until their previous grant period has ended, leaving a potential period when the community loses all funding, Reynolds said.

In Grand Rapids, the $2.9 million federal funding is used to help families enroll in programs to have their homes remediated and cleared of lead, said Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. Families with lead poisoning are put at the top of the list, and then the money is used to help anyone with high lead levels.

The problem is that applying for grants is difficult and competitive statewide, and this adds to the difficulty rural areas have to secure any sort of federal funding, Haan said.

“HUD’s model doesn’t really work,” he said. “If you live in Sparta or Owosso or a locality where lead isn’t concentrated, you probably aren’t going to get money from the feds.”

In Calhoun County, officials have begun their own lead prevention and education programs without help from the federal government or the state’s health department. Instead, they are using general fund dollars to provide care for people with high levels of lead.

“We wanted to increase testing for kids and raise awareness about lead,” said Helen Guzzo, a community development specialist in Battle Creek. “We would like a source of state or federal funding to do more remediation that we manage.”

Calhoun County’s efforts are a way to show the state health department and the federal government they are serious about lead, Reynolds said. But in places where local agencies cannot invest in lead remediation, that lack of priority signals to the state that it doesn’t  need to step in.

Reynolds said this is one of the main problems with how funding is distributed. For a community to have a better chance of securing more funding, it must spend money on lead on a local level first, but this poses problems for areas that can’t afford it.

“Because lead isn’t an essential local health service, it requires communities to dedicate resources from their own general fund,” she said. “Some communities can do that and some can’t.”

Haan, of the Healthy Homes Coalition, said the lack of resources disproportionately hurts rural areas, and until the state makes it a priority, this will continue.

The lack of standards regarding lead in homes adds to the difficulty, he said.

“There should be a set of community standards and expectations that we’re providing safe houses,” he said. “Our current standard promotes ignorance.”

Haan pointed anecdotally to people who might be renting out an old house, who aren’t going to make it known to the renters that the home might expose them to high levels of lead. It’s a don’t ask, don’t tell situation, he said.

A federal law requires owners of real estate to disclose the presence of lead in buildings built before 1978 and to provide an Environmental Protection Agency-approved pamphlet regarding lead exposure.

Eisner said, “We know this can be a difficult process. Right now our area focus is Flint and then other areas of the state as identified.”

Ray Wilbur writes for Capital News Service

3 thoughts on “Lead poisoning is statewide, help is not

  1. Pamela,
    I understand your cynicism, but what you write about relaxing standards is not always the case. The lead standard for drinking water before 1990 was 50 microgram per liter. If you would compare the present standards with those of a few decades ago, you will find many more chemical compounds that were earlier ignored or not even existing like many synthetic organics.

    However, the main problem is, that both our water and sewage treatment technologies are more than a century old and that indeed problems are solved by adding chemical that may solve the original problem, but often are causing others problems.

    The goal of water and sewage treatment should be to clean the water by removing unwanted particles. Our present drinking water treatment still is focussed on basically removing only those particles so the water looks clear, while the purpose of our sewage treatment processes still basically is the remove those particles that cause nuisances, mainly odor problems.

    Although there is more knowledge and better treatment, those working in this field of public works engineering, including governments, are reluctant to any change, as change often is considered proof that the old systems used are faulty and that is hard to admit.

    The use of chlorine since 1910, is a clear example, why many still insist that this is the best chemical to disinfect (kill bugs) water, while its effectiveness is in question and nobody likes to talk about the, what are now called DBP’s (Disinfection By Products) or bugs that have become chlorine resistant.

    When EPA in 1972 implemented the CWA, it set limits for e-coli bacteria and to meet this standards, existing sewage treatments plants installed chlorination equipment, as cheap testing for residual chlorine was allowed to meet this new standards.

    Treated sewage still has a lot of organic matter and in contact with chlorine, many are halogenated, forming the DBP’s, some carcinogenic and some endocrine disruptors. The formed THM’s (Tri Halo Methanes) were the first showing up in the water supplies of cities and raised alarms, as a pollutant not removed by conventional treatment.

    EPA in 1978, advised by the CDC and GAO that disinfection of sewage did not prevent waterborne deceases and was very damaging to aquatic life, drop its national requirement, but left it up to individual states to either maintain or stop this requirement. Most states (supported by the chlorine industries) maintained this requirement, hence keep dumping these DBP’s in our open waters.

    When the EPA in 1972 also set sewage treatment standards to implement the CWA, it again only addressed those pollutants causing a nuisance, while ignoring the nitrogenous waste (urine and protein) now called ‘nutrient pollution’. All this, while the goal of the CWA was to eliminate all water pollution by 1985.

    The latter however was also caused, by a faulty applied water pollution test, at that time commonly used. Rather embarrassing, but unacceptable that it is going to take more than 34 years to correct this essential test test, so we finally will know how sewage is really treated and multi-million dollar sewage treatment plants are not designed to treat the wrong waste. For those interested in the history and a description of the BOD ((Biochemical Oxygen Demand) test, read wp.me/p5COh2-25.

    After 44 years, it is time to implement the CWA as it was intended and to objectively evaluate all existing water and sewage treatment technologies, not because mistakes were made, but because more information and knowledge is available.

  2. Peter, When the Fukushima plant leaked, as it has and continues to do- the US government increased the acceptable level of radiation in food and water. The acceptable level of Mercury in fish has been increased. The level of allowable arsenic in foods has been increased. The level of allowable chlorine in water has been increased along with copper, chlorite, and chlorate. It appears as though the “harmless” fluoride levels have been determined necessary to decrease.

    While lead cannot be completely eliminated, allowing an increase in daily lead intake from water is something I foresee as being probable. All our government does is exchange one poison for another.

    I DO NOT drink unfiltered water, however, I gas myself with chlorine with every shower. We have always been told that the water is safe because it is free of bacteria and other life more so than in other countries while being told the chemicals are safe to consume and the health of our people continues to degrade from all angles. Is it not indicative of the water’s quality that it can sustain no microbial life?

    If an entire state can be allowed to suffer from lead poisoning, what faith am I supposed to have in my own local water supply? At least my provider is honest and, supplies a report of water sources on an annual basis. Road runoff. A river, whose supply has continuously been fought over between three states because COCA COLA requires a free supply for overpriced chemicals marketed for consumption… The river of which sewage and dead bodies are regularly dumped. I just can’t bring myself to call this safe… Even if the decaying corpses, road soil, gas and leaked oil are removed– they are replaced by poison as well

  3. Yes, the lead concentrations in Flint’s drinking water in houses did exceed the limit of 15 ppb and it was obvious that the problems were caused by switching their water supply to the Flint River. A river, like most rivers polluted because EPA never implemented the CWA. The media declared the water to be toxic, while nobody questioned what the actual daily exposure is to lead. By googling “WHO, lead in drinking water”, one would have learned that more than 80% of the daily lead intake, comes from food and dirt (dust) in the air and that lead is the most common half metal in the earth’s crust. The low lead concentration standard (15 ppb) in drinking water is basically set, partly on the allowable lead intake of a bottle-fed baby (although many will claim that lead intake should be zero) and partly on a more practical reason that, if water contains lead (water is a universal solvent), removing this lead below this 15 ppb is not possible.
    If somebody would have bothered to check this WHO document, I am sure we would not be in the situation we are in now.

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