Health and environmental experts have been warning people for decades about the health risks associated with exposure to lead. But, as with many health issues, there is often little thought given to potential hazards until a health crisis presents itself.
With much of the nation's attention currently focused on Flint's water crisis, health and infrastructure officials are facing a deluge of questions regarding the potential of lead contaminated drinking water. However, those with such concerns may be overlooking more commonplace sources of lead poisoning.
In Flint, lead water lines were the source of contamination that resulted in a water crisis in the city. Throughout suburban Oakland County, older lead lines remain intact and are being used to some degree. However, water and health officials say anti-corrosive measures taken by the Great Lakes Water Authority – formerly the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department – have kept lead levels well below maximum limits for decades, a claim that can be supported by local water quality testing reports.
"That was a unique situation from a water source," said Oakland County Environmental Health Services Administrator Anthony Drautz. "The water here is typically purchased from Detroit, or is well water. I don't think the two can be compared that way. It's a different situation in Flint than in Oakland County. We are using water from Detroit, and there is corrosion control."
Still, Drautz said local residents have expressed concern about lead contamination in their drinking water.
"We are answering calls specific to lead. That's more of a situation because of what is going on in Flint," he said. "The lead we are used to being asked to look into is dust in homes, mostly in homes with lead paint. Now it's about drinking water."
Across Oakland County, the main sources of lead exposure in suburban communities are dust and lead-based paint particles that deteriorate and flake off inside older homes. Outside soils also may be contaminated by lead-based exterior paints and exhaust from lead-fueled vehicles of the 20th century, which is why nationally higher lead levels are often detected in more densely populated areas where vehicle traffic is heavier or there are more highways. The lead component in vehicle fuel is heavier and will often just fall to the ground or be carried up against buildings and then fall to the ground and mix with the soil.
The effects of lead exposure have been evident since ancient times, and in the United States since the 1920s, when leaded gasoline began to fuel automobiles. It wasn't until the 1970s in America that the government took meaningful steps to limit the use of lead in paint, and until 1995 when leaded gasoline was phased out in the United States. Despite the ban on lead-based products in this country, potential exposure to lead products remains.
Concerns about the use of leaded fuels were raised in the early development of the additives. At the time, car companies were looking for a way to improve engine performance. Engineers with General Motors and Standard Oil Company discovered the addition of tetraethyl lead, or TEL, worked near miracles on engine performance. They also discovered exposure to the product could result in horrific death. In 1924, five men exposed to the additive became "raving mad" and were confined to straight jackets before they died, according to news archives. The incidents earned the fuel the nickname "loony gas," and resulted in a temporary ban of the product in New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia.
"Using leaded gasoline will produce chronic lead poisoning on a large scale in the population cities," Yale University professor Yandell Henderson said in a 1925 New York Times article. He went on to say that the use of lead in fuel would likely cause "a vast number of the population to suffer from slow lead poisoning."
While lead is naturally found in the ground at low levels, soil with levels of lead at 400 parts per billion (ppb) are of particular concern, according to the EPA. However, a soil sample study conducted by the Detroit Free Press in 2003 throughout Metro Detroit's tri-county area found soil samples as high as 800 ppb in Rochester Hills, which had a median of only 11 ppb at 19 sites.
While the effects of lead exposure were suspected in the 1920s, industry-funded research concluded early on that lead was only a minor health risk. It wasn't until 1975, when automakers began equipping cars with catalytic converters – which are destroyed by leaded gas – that an alternative to leaded gasoline was sought. About 40 percent of all gas sales were that of leaded fuel in 1985, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A final phase out of leaded gasoline in the United States didn't occur until 1995.
Children are the most susceptible to lead exposure. Because their bodies are growing, they absorb more lead than adults do, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the effects of lead. Babies and young children are at particular risk of exposure because they are more likely to put their hands and other items exposed to lead dust or soil into their mouths. Lead-based paint was banned for interior use in 1978.
Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death. Lead that's ingested or inhaled doesn't exit the body. Instead, it is stored in bones along with calcium. That makes it a particular concern for pregnant women, because lead can be released from the bones to the fetus. Lead exposure to adults can lead to cardiovascular issues, decreased kidney function and reproductive issues.
The health effects of lead exposure have been widely documented recently by local and national news reports covering Flint's water crisis. It has also caused some local communities to reassure residents about the quality of local drinking water.
"With recent water quality concerns in Flint, it is important for residents to understand the water quality standards in their community. Birmingham publishes an annual report on water quality which show the sources of water, lists the results of our tests and contains important information about the city's water and public health," the city said in a missive issued on its website. "These annual reports continually show Birmingham's water quality standards surpass the water quality standards mandated by the EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality."
Local water quality reports measure lead levels in parts per billion, or ppb. Under federal water quality requirements, water showing lead levels higher than 15 ppb must take actions to lower the levels. Reports also list a "90th percentile value," which represents the micrograms per liter concentration that 90 percent of the taps tested were at or below. If the 90th percentile value is above the action level, additional requirements must be met.
According to results from Birmingham's 2014 water quality report – the most recent available – no samples in the city were over the action level. The city also had a 90 percent value of 0 micrograms per liter, with no violations in the system. Water quality reports from Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township also listed no samples above the action level, and included a 90th percentile value of 0. The communities receive drinking water from the Great Lakes Water Authority's (GLWA) system, previously administered by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).
The majority of Oakland County residents receive drinking water from the Great Lakes Water Authority. Others, including a portion of Rochester residents, receive drinking water from local municipal or individual wells. For those hooked into the regional system, water comes from two main sources. Residents living north of 14 Mile Road receive their water from the utility's Lake Huron Water Treatment plant. Those south of 14 Mile Road receive water from the Springwells treatment plant, along the Detroit River.
"Several of our customer communities brought to my attention that they are receiving calls from residents concerned that the water quality issues in Flint may be affecting the water quality in their community. I want to clarify the issue and provide assurance that what is in the press daily regarding Flint is an unfortunate circumstance, limited solely to the homes and businesses served by Flint," said Great Lakes Water Authority CEO Sue McCormick.
McCormick said issues in Flint occurred after the city failed to take steps to manage water chemistry, leading corrosive water from the Flint River to remove protective coatings in the pipes that come in contact with treated water. This caused the lead to leach from service lines and home plumbing – lead that ended up in the water out of the taps. She said Flint has switched back to the Great Lakes Water Authority and improvement in the quality at the tap is being seen.
"We have worked to achieve and maintain optimal corrosion control in our treatment of water," McCormick said. "Federal regulations acknowledge that this treatment technique is the best approach to minimize exposure to lead in drinking water – establishing that protective coating – and minimizing the ability of lead or other materials from the service lines or plumbing fixtures in homes we serve to leach into the water. ... To our knowledge, no community consistently served by GLWA, formerly DWSD, has reported any lead issues."
In Rochester, the western portion of the city, west of the water tower, is supplied by groundwater, while portions east of the water tower are supplied by Utica, by way of the Great Lakes Water Authority. Regardless of where they receive water, Rochester Public Works Director David Anason said residents should be secure about lead levels.
"The Clean Water Act guides where and how often we test, and lead is one of the many things we test for," he said. “We have a very low levels, and there is no action required. We continue to produce superior water. (Residents) shouldn't be concerned.
Anason said drinking water in the city is tested at two different locations.
"One is at the source, and the Great Lakes Water Authority tests there and produces the documentation. We also do that in Rochester for our well field," he said. "We also have to test at the distribution system, and we take random samples at multiple locations. We test in multiple private businesses and around town.
"There are some houses that have lead pipes and some older transmission lines that have lead solder, but there is nothing in the water that would cause it to leach."
None of the samples of drinking water from ground wells or the GLWA system in Rochester in 2014 tested above the action level set by the EPA. The city's 90th percentile level was 3.4 micrograms per liter for the city's water wells and .75 micrograms per liter for water from the GLWA.
In Rochester Hills, drinking water is supplied by the GLWA. The most recent water quality reports indicate 0 homes tested above the EPA's action level, and a 90th percentile value of 0.
While local water quality reports offer residents a snapshot of water quality, blood testing for lead levels of children in a community are conducted across the state and reported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. In total, the department states about 70 percent of the state's children are tested for lead in their first few years. Under state guidelines, all children enrolled in Medicaid must be blood lead tested at 12 and 24 months of age, or between 36 and 72 months if not previously tested.
The federal Centers for Disease Control uses a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) to identify children with blood lead levels that are higher than most children's levels, down from 10 micrograms per deciliter. The CDC said the new level is based on the US population of children ages 1 to 5 years who are in the highest 2.5 percent of children when tested for lead in their blood. Until recently, children were identified as having a blood lead "level of concern" if the test result is 10 or more micrograms per deciliter of blood. Previously, blood lead level testing below 10 micrograms per deciliter may or may not have been reported to parents. While the reference level has changed, the CDC has and continues to recommend medical treatment for children with blood lead levels equal or greater to 45 micrograms per deciliter.
According to 2012 state data, about 5,734 children less than six years of age had blood lead levels between 5 ug/dL and 9 ug/dL. The data, which is sorted by zip codes, indicates some of the highest percentage of children with elevated lead blood levels are in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, and Holland.
Statewide, about 4.5 percent of children tested had elevated blood lead levels. State data from 2012 shows about 1.9 percent of the 13,701 children tested in Oakland County had elevated blood levels, with 254 having levels of 5 ug/dL or more, and 24 higher than 10 ug/dL. Meanwhile, in Detroit, 8.5 percent of the 27,298 children tested had elevated blood levels.
In the Birmingham/Bloomfield and Rochester/Rochester Hills areas, the percentage of children tested who have elevated blood lead levels is low, but still existent, according to 2012 and 2013 data released by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Data for 2014 – the department's most current – suppressed figures if the number of positive results within a zip code fell below 6.
In 2012, 3 of 240 children (1.3 percent) in Birmingham's 48009 zip code had levels of 5 ug/dL or more. None tested were positive in 2013. Positive results in 2014 were less than six children.
Two of the three zip codes in Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills had children with elevated blood levels in 2012 or 2013. In 48301, 2 of 104 (1.9 percent) children tested had elevated levels in 2012. In 48304, 1 of 77 (1.3 percent) of children tested in 2012, and 3 of 80 (3.8 percent) had elevated levels in 2013. Positive results in 2014 were less than six.
All three zip codes in the Rochester/Rochester Hills area included children with elevated blood lead levels in 2012 or 2013. In 48306, 1 of 78 (1.3 percent) in 2012 and 1 of 120 (.8 percent) of children tested had elevated blood levels. In 48307, 5 of 299 (1.7 percent) in 2012 and 7 of 277 (2.5 percent) of children tested had elevated blood levels. In 48309, 2 of 163 (1.2 percent) children tested in 2013 had elevated blood levels.
Despite the recent focus of blood lead levels associated with exposure to contaminated drinking water, the most common exposure to lead is from lead paint in houses built before 1978, and lead in dust and soil. Old painted toys and furniture, as well as some imported items, may also contain lead in the materials or paint. Products that adults and children handle every day are potential lead sources, but paint from homes that have not been updated, renovated or remodeled is the primary source for lead exposure. Lead-based paint inside a home can chip off of window frames, walls and doors and can be ingested or inhaled.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services includes data on housing stock in its annual blood lead level report. In Oakland County – where about 1.9 percent of children tested in 2012 had elevated blood lead levels – about 60.5 percent of homes were constructed before 1978, with 14.7 percent of homes built prior to 1950. In Detroit – where about 8.5 percent of children tested in 2012 had elevated blood lead levels – more than 93 percent of homes were built before 1978, and about 62 percent before 1950.
All zip codes in the Birmingham/Bloomfield and Rochester/Rochester Hills areas, except one, have less than 12 percent of its total homes built prior to 1950. In Birmingham, about 39.8 percent of homes were built prior to 1950. Likewise, the 48069 zip code of Pleasant Ridge has a high percentage (79.6 percent) of pre-1950 housing, but zero cases of elevated blood levels in 2013. However, the Highland Park/Detroit zip code of 48203 – where 11.8 percent of children tested had elevated blood lead levels – has more than 60 percent of its homes constructed before 1950. The differences are likely due to the prominence of fully renovated homes in the two older Oakland County communities.
The state's health department offers assistance to residents through its Lead Safe Homes program, which provides testing and hazard control assistance to qualifying families through grants. Those who may qualify include families with a child under 6 years old or a pregnant female; low-to-moderate income families; and those living in homes built before 1978. Additional information and resources may be found at the department's website.
Michigan's Department of Community Health maintains a Lead Safe Housing Registry, which can be accessed online. The site is a listing of single-family homes, duplexes, apartments and daycare homes and centers that have received professional lead service. Such services may have been to identify lead paint or remove paint hazards. The services must have been performed by a state certified lead professional or company.
According to data at the registry, about 223 properties in Oakland County have received lead services, including one in Birmingham; two in Bloomfield Township; two in Bloomfield Hills; one in Rochester; and four in Rochester Hills.
Rashard Montgomery, owner of RSM Lead Inspections in Southfield, is a certified inspector who has conducted inspections in Bloomfield Township. In addition to private lead inspectors, Oakland County's health and housing departments maintain several certified lead inspectors.
"Typically, it depends on what the client would need one for. It could be if a child is poisoned, if a homeowner is selling a home, or if someone is looking to purchase," Montgomery said of inspections he conducts, which include interior/exterior home inspections, as well as elevated blood level tests. "Certain cities and insurance companies require inspections for rental properties. If renovation work or whatever kind of work is being done on a home that is older, and children are there, best practice is to have it done."
Montgomery said he often analyzes 200 to 500 different components of a building during an inspection, keeping in mind how adults and children may be exposed. "Usually, kids would get it from ingestion, and adults usually from inhalation," he said. "Lead is sweet (tasting), so a child could be drawn back to it."
Lead-based paint became popular because of its speedy drying and increased durability. While banned for interior home use in 1978, lead-based paint was still popular for outdoor uses, and is still available and in utilized today.
"The state still uses it as road paint. They use it everywhere. They used it on other components, like fire hydrants and old playgrounds," Montgomery said. "It's still used. People don't always realize it's lead paint. They use it in marinas for boats or to whitewash decks because it lasts longer. It lasts a long time, but when it goes bad, it goes real bad."