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Lead poisoning prevention as economic development

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We must remain vigilant about preventing lead poisoning in our community's children. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure - now, and in the future.

/City of Grand Rapids and Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan

October 19 - 25, 2014, is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. You’re probably asking yourself, “Is lead still a problem?” The short answer is yes, but it’s important to note that today’s concern is not the same concern as a decade ago.

Last year, another 551 children birth to 5 years of age in Kent County were identified as having blood lead levels above the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) reference level. That’s enough children to fill up two grade schools, or 20 typical classrooms. That’s a big problem. Yet 10 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 from 10 to five micrograms per deciliter of blood lead content. Today, CDC guidance tells us to respond at levels half of those that concerned us 10 years ago.

So the reality is that, by today’s standard, there were 3,187 children identified as having high levels ten years ago in 2004. Last year’s 551 kids represents an 83% decrease in the number of children poisoned. That’s 551 kids too many, and still a problem.

In 2011, the CDC responded to the wealth of scientific evidence that shifted the focus from the acute, clinical effects of lead poisoning on kids to the long-term impact upon children’s cognitive development. Instead of focusing upon kidney failure, encephalopathy and the like, the new reference level focuses upon the long-term impact upon a child’s ability to read, pay attention and behave. When one looks at the problem of childhood lead poisoning through the lense of population health, childhood lead poisoning is still a problem.

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 entitled “Economic 


Michigan.” That report 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.

Holding fast to a traditional view of lead poisoning, one might think that the biggest economic impact would be in health care. But of the $330 million total, health care expenses were a little more than $18 million, or five percent. Special education only adds another $2.5 million. So where is the cost?

Lead has been clearly been 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 future economy by impacting the future Michigan workforce. Children who are lead poisoned are denied their full potential. That potential includes 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 certainly wouldn't want your child’s health status to be contributing to the figures above. To keep your child safe, you want to make sure that their environment is lead-safe. As much as 90% 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 And 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 population health problem like lead poisoning by making sure children are being 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 also need to join the fight. If the key to an improved economy is job creation, employers should demand that government also 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 University of Michigan 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 then we knew then. Yes childhood lead poisoning is still a problem, and the old truism still fits. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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