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Four overlooked issues for National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week

2016 lead prevention week icon

This is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which aims to raise awareness to reduce childhood exposure to lead.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Michiganders may be more aware of the hazards of lead than ever before. Still, we’ve got a lot of work to do. In 2014, more than 5,000 children in Michigan had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter. That’s the level at which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends public health action to protect children, but the CDC says there is no safe level of exposure to lead. The true number of lead-afflicted children in Michigan is likely much higher, since only 20 percent of children under six years old were tested in 2014.

We’ve written quite a lot here about lead poisoning in Michigan and our work to make it a thing of the past. You can find useful background here, here and here.

Since we’ve covered the basics in previous posts, we thought we’d mark this prevention week by highlighting some lead-related issues that don’t get much attention:

Don’t get tricked by toxic treats.

With Halloween coming up next week, it’s good to be aware of a largely overlooked source of lead exposure: imported candy. The Food and Drug Administration says children and pregnant women should not eat candy imported from Mexico, which may be contaminated by lead in wrappers or through improper manufacturing practices. Candy from China, the Philippines and other countries may also contain trace amounts of lead. The federal government reports that, in California, 15 percent of childhood lead poisoning cases can be traced to tainted candy.

We don’t want to needlessly stoke fears. Halloween is fun, and you’ve got enough to worry about it. Just stick to candy produced in the U.S.

We need more cleanup contractors.

Michigan has a long way to go in cleaning up lead from homes built before 1978, when lead-based paint was outlawed. The Ecology Center recently reported that a $600 million investment to remove lead hazards from the state’s 100,000 most at-risk homes would reduce childhood lead poisoning by 70 percent and, by a conservative estimate, pay for itself in just over three years.

A major hurdle in lead abatement efforts, however, is our shortage of cleanup contractors. Michigan law requires anyone doing lead abatement work to be certified by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Because not enough contractors are certified, Michigan families face longer delays and prolonged risk of lead exposure for children.

To help speed things along, the state—for a limited time—is providing $650 stipends to contractors who sign up to get certified. In exchange, applicants must provide a co-pay of $50 and agree to bid annually on abatement jobs in Flint over the next five years. Funding is limited, so if you are interested in getting your company certified, the time is now! More information is available here or by calling 517-284-4810.

Lead poisoning is a problem for adults, too.

As this Holland Sentinel story notes, Michigan has inadequate protections for people who work around lead, such as in some manufacturing jobs.  And those workers can also put their children at risk of lead poisoning by bringing it home on their clothing and shoes. In Michigan, more than a third of children whose parents have elevated blood lead levels likewise test positive.

As MEC’s Tina Reynolds said in the Sentinel story, “If we’re looking at eliminating lead in this state, we have to look at everyone…The tendency is to look at the smoking gun and be done, but there’s much more to this…If we don’t take a comprehensive approach and look at lead in adults, then we are ignoring them as well as their children.”

Hunters, you have non-toxic options.

It’s hard to beat autumn in the north woods. I went upland bird hunting in northern Michigan last weekend, I’m doing the same next weekend, and I’m getting prepared for the upcoming firearm deer season. And this year, for the first time, I’m hunting lead-free.

Lead bullets can fragment into hundreds of tiny pieces when they hit an animal. That means hunters may be unintentionally feeding their children meat that is tainted with fragments too small to notice, but large enough to be serious cause for concern. Again, there is no safe level of lead exposure. Moreover, shooting introduces lead into the environment, where eagles, coyotes and other animals can easily ingest deadly or highly toxic levels. Lead poisoning is responsible for more than half of California condor deaths, making lead ammunition—which they ingest while scavenging—the top killer of the endangered birds.

There’s a common misperception among hunters that lead ammunition is the only effective option, and that alternatives are far more expensive. Years ago, those may have been valid arguments. Today, that dog won’t hunt; research shows little difference in price or performance between premium lead ammunition and nontoxic alternatives.

If you hunt, check out this site run by wildlife biologists who seek to provide their fellow hunters with accurate information and helpful tips on making the switch to lead-free ammunition.

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