Beyond the Water: Lead Exposure in Detroit’s Children

In the first blog of our “Beyond the Water” series, we explained the background of blood lead level testing and explored elevated blood lead level (EBLL) data for the entire state, comparing rates of lead exposure across Michigan.  In this blog, we’re going to drill down into Detroit’s lead levels.

Detroit’s 9.9% rate of EBLL was 5th highest among cities with 1,000 or more tests in 2007.  Detroit accounts for the largest percentage of total children tested statewide with EBLLs. A deeper understanding of where these children with EBLLs live and characteristics of the community can help parents and caregivers advocate more strongly for policies and procedures in the city to mitigate exposure.

Looking at the percentage of children with EBLLs by census tract in Detroit, some patterns begin to emerge.

EBLL rates over 20% are highly concentrated in southern parts of Highland Park, the Lower East Side, parts of Boston Edison, Delray and the Near West Side.  These areas also had higher levels of children tested compared to other neighborhoods.  Parts of Southwest Detroit, Hamtramck, the neighborhood around city airport, and Banglatown have very high rates of testing and EBLLs that are still higher than the Detroit average.

The wide variation in numbers of children tested in each census tract can partially be accounted for by the dispersion of children throughout the neighborhoods; however, it’s also apparent that EBLL testing can be expanded in specific communities, especially those that have relatively high EBLLs rates reported, but relatively lower counts of children tested. These include parts of Lower East Side (west of Gratiot), Islandview, West Village, and Indian Village. It’s important to increase EBLL testing rates up in communities with lower testing rates to better understanding the lead exposure rates across the city.

To examine the potential factors that could impact lead exposure among Detroit’s children, we mapped both schools with elevated lead levels in their water supply as reported by DPSCD as well as demolitions.  Since administrative data for Hamtramck and Highland Park and their respective school systems aren’t readily available, their data was not included in this additional analysis.

In terms of schools that had high levels of lead in the water supply, four clusters of three or more schools with elevated levels were identified. In the northernmost part of Northwest Detroit, four schools had elevated levels of lead.  However, these communities also have high rates of testing and rates of EBLLs below the state average.  Four schools from Nordin Park south through NW Goldberg also had elevated levels.  These tracts have moderate levels of testing, but rates of EBLL exceeding 20%, highlighting an increased need of testing in these communities.  In Southwest Detroit, five schools had elevated lead levels; however, as already mentioned, Southwest has relatively high testing rates and EBLLs both above and below Detroit’s average rate. The fourth group of three schools is located in the Lower East Side (east of Gratiot) down into Islandview/Indian Village.  These neighborhoods have high rates of EBLL and mixed rates of testing.  Since three of the four communities have concentrations where over 20% of kids have EBBLs, it is important to further investigate schools as a potential source of lead exposure.
For demolitions, there are some communities such as the Lower East Side (east of Gratiot) and North End where demolition activity is in the top quintile for the city.  However, many census tracts in the top quintile of demolitions have very low rates of EBLLs.  There are many other factors related to demolitions that could impact lead exposure such a proximity on a smaller scale than census tract, demolitions over a time, time of year, etc.  These factors should all be closely examined to better understand the relationship of demolitions to lead exposure.

This data tells multiple stories. First, some communities are at low-risk for EBLLs overall despite schools and demolitions being potential contaminates.  Second, many communities are at higher risk for EBLLs, but low rates of testing preclude researchers from understanding the full story.