House committee hears testimony on lead abatement bills

By Michigan Advance

January 19, 2024

BY JON KING, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—A package of bills to better protect children and others from lead contamination got their first hearing on Thursday in front of a state House committee.

The bills, which would lower the threshold by which the blood lead level in children would be considered as elevated, while also amending requirements related to lead abatement and mitigation for certain buildings or activities, including renovations, came before the House Health Policy Committee, chaired by state Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo), a practicing physical therapist.

In speaking to the committee about the bill she sponsored, HB 5368, Rogers said her experience gave her firsthand knowledge of the dangers that lead exposure can lead to.

“One of my patients experienced severe balance issues that progressively worsened despite our best attempts to rehab and treat their symptoms,” she said. “It wasn’t until a heavy metal blood panel test came back positive for lead that we realized that my patient was experiencing exposure and side effects to lead poisoning. We eventually learned that this tragedy was from a coffee mug he drank out of every morning that had been painted with lead-based paint. This is just one example, but it highlights that lead exposure can happen in many ways, not just in drinking water and lead pipes. Lead is a very difficult substance to detect because it has no odor and you cannot see it.”

HB 5368 would set an upper limit of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) for an elevated blood lead level (EBL), which is currently set in the state’s public health code at 10 µg/dL for children 6 and under. It would also permanently tie it to whichever level is lower as set by either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Both of those agencies also have it set at 3.5 µg/dL, having lowered it from 5 µg/dL in 2022.

Rogers noted the changing standards and said her legislation would allow for flexibility based on new data.

“Science, however, has advanced in recent years and medical professionals have recognized that an even lower level of lead detected and blood requires medical intervention,” she said. “House Bill 5368 would bring Michigan in line with the new blood lead reference value by adopting the 3.5 microgram per deciliter standard, while providing the opportunity to use a lower level if science determines a lower level is appropriate in the future.”

Testifying remotely, Jane Nickert, nursing manager at Washtenaw County Health Department and board member of Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health, told the committee that the true extent of the problem can’t be determined until proper testing is conducted.

“As more young children are tested for lead as a result of the new law for universal testing, we will likely see more Michigan children diagnosed with a lead level that exceeds the reference level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter,” she said. “These bills will help ensure services and supports are available for families dealing with a child who has an elevated lead level.”

However, Rogers said even after an elevated blood blood level has been determined, residents can still slip through through the cracks in receiving vital services and early intervention, which is where HB 5369 would make a difference. Sponsored by Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit), it would require an automatic referral to the Early On program, Michigan’s system for helping families of infants and toddlers who have developmental delays and/or disabilities.

“Families who participate in Early On receive additional resources and support to deal with the consequences of early childhood lead poisoning,” said Rogers, adding that can include damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavioral problems, hearing and speech problems, as well as anemia, seizures and sometimes even coma.

“The longer a person is exposed to lead, the higher the likelihood that health problems could occur and the effects may be longer lasting,” she said. “House Bill 5369 is crucial to ensuring that Michigan’s children are connected with the resources they need as soon as possible after lead exposure.”

The third bill in the package, HB 4532, is sponsored by Rep. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), and would amend the definition of the term abatement to include what is referred to as “an interim control activity or other measure or activity designed to temporarily reduce a lead-based paint hazard.” Currently, such measures are specifically excluded from being considered abatement.

Hood told committee members that while great strides have been to lessen the threat of lead poisoning in the aftermath of the water crisis in Flint, the threat remains.

“There continues to be a lot of confusion and misalignment of our responses, when in fact, more children, significantly more children, are poisoned as a result of lead dust in their homes than are poisoned as a result of exposure to lead through water systems,” she said. “So we’ve done a lot of really wonderful work (and) thank you to all of you who have championed those causes around that and water. But now it’s time to take on a significantly more important issue, which is the lead dust issue.”

Hood said the changes in her bill are already required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to continue authorization for the lead abatement and pre-renovation education programs and by adopting the new standards, it will ensure continued funding from the EPA for Michigan’s lead programs.

“EPA requires that renovation and repair projects that disturb lead based paint in homes, childcare facilities and preschools built before 1978 be performed by lead safe contractors,” she said. “Generally, EPA’s lead renovation and repair rule does not apply to homeowners doing renovation and repair projects in their homes and so there’s an additional need.”

Speaking to that point was Dr. Cheryl Dickson, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Western Michigan University and board certified in pediatric emergency medicine.

Testifying remotely, Dickson said the danger to children posed by lead particles is magnified by the fact that they are closer to the ground where those particles are likely to be found and typically are putting their fingers and other items in their mouth.

“So dust particles, which can actually contain a large amount of lead, they’re orally taking in these dust particles with this concentration that will be large for them and their body,” she said. “So it’s really important that these bills that you’re introducing, making sure people are certified and how they do it when they’re doing construction are done.”

Dickson said when it comes to lead poisoning, prevention has to be the primary focus.

“Once the damage has occurred to the neurons, it’s irreversible,” she said. “That actually is really important to know about and understand why these bills are so important for primary prevention. The damage is irreversible, meaning that particularly children less than the age of 36 months who are actually more vulnerable because their brain is in the process of collecting information and growing and lead attaches to their developing neurons.”

Also testifying on Thursday was Erika Farley, executive director of the Rental Property Owners Association of Michigan, who said that while the group is not at all opposed to lead testing and ensuring safe and clean housing for Michigan residents, there were still questions that needed to be answered in regards to what happens to renters if they need to be removed from a home undergoing remodeling work and who would be responsible for paying for their placement.

Hood responded that displacement was not necessarily required to prevent exposure during remodeling as long as responsible containment strategies were utilized, noting that she accessed the expertise of Paul Hahn, the executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, during the remodel of her 100-year-old home.

“Paul was critical in helping my family understand how to do renovation and repair on our own during the period when my very young children, at that time between 0 and 3, were in the house,” she said “We were able to successfully do what we needed to do to both contain the lead on the property and prevent further exposure without significant displacement. There were moments where I had to take the kids to the children’s museum while dad did some sanding, but thank God we knew, and I would hope any contractor working in a home with children present would be fully trained as a result of this law to be able to intervene and make sure that the children were protected in that home.”

Minority Vice Chair Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington), who was very noticeable in his Green Bay Packers suit jacket, questioned what kind of increased costs the state would be facing once the EBL threshold were lowered and new enrollees became eligible for services.

An analysis by the House Fiscal Agency says the financial impact on the state of the three bills is “indeterminate,” although it is likely the lower EBL threshold would “increase costs for both the department and local health departments, as these services are funded through a cost-sharing model,” adding that it might also create minimal costs for the Department of Education, but those “would likely be absorbed using existing staff time.”

Rogers noted this is the second round of legislation dealing with lead contamination, following 2023’s bipartisan bills to require all children be tested for lead poisoning between 12 and 24 months of age while also implementing the Clean Drinking Water Act mandating Michigan schools and childcare centers install filtered-faucets, develop a drinking water management plan and conduct routine sampling and testing to ensure children have access to safe drinking water.

“So I anticipate that we’re going to see a dramatic increase in the number of children that test positive because we’ll be increasing the number of tests,” Rogers responded to VanderWall. “So I think it’s going to be difficult to tease out, should this new legislation before us today pass, which bills did what.”

Afterward, Hood told the Michigan Advance that she believes the legislation will ultimately get passed, even in spite of the current impasse in the House in which both parties hold 54 seats, which lead to an amendment failing on Wednesday due to a tie.

“I feel very positive about this getting passed. We may need to wait until later in the spring to bring it up on the floor, but I think this is a common sense approach,” she said. “It’s not intended to harm the industry or to delay renovation and repair. And in fact, like all of us, I want to see all of our families able to live in affordable and healthy housing. Part of that means that the affordable and healthy housing is lead free because it is not affordable, or convenient, to deal with the impacts in the aftermath of lead poisoning in our communities. And it just happens far too often with our population.”

Other supporters of the bills include the Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health, as well as the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH).

Rogers said her intention was to take the bills up for a vote at the next committee hearing.

READ MORE: New ‘Filter First’ laws to protect Michigan kids from dirty drinking water

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 

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