October 28, 2020

Center for Urban Studies' $700K grant to focus on testing cost-effective means of protecting families from lead exposure

Cracking and peeling lead paint off of wood siding. Detroit’s aging housing stock presents many environmental health hazards, with lead paint dust presenting the primary hazard to vulnerable minority children living in low-income neighborhoods

Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies was recently awarded a grant to test cost-effective means of protecting families from lead exposure through improved temporary emergency relocations and new permanent voluntary relocations.

The three-year award, totaling $700,000 — from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Lead and Healthy Home Technical Studies program — will support the Detroit Lead Technical Study project (HUD #MILTS0015-20). The study will test two innovative relocation models that may prove effective at reducing blood lead levels in children, while also demonstrating cost-effectiveness over the existing lead abatement model.

“In the context of COVID-19, where lead abatement is delayed, it is critical to identify cost-effective means of supporting families with a child with an elevated blood lead level while ensuring that the family and the child end up in a safe setting,” said Lyke Thompson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Urban Studies and the project’s principal investigator. “The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting increased time that children are in their homes is expected to increase the number with elevated blood lead levels when higher testing resumes sometime in the future.”

Thompson

Thompson has a proven track record of successfully implementing environmental health grant research initiatives, including a HUD award in 2012 for a Healthy Homes Technical Studies project. In that study, Thompson found that 54.7% of Detroit homes had at least one major home hazard. This study was conducted in homes across the city using the Healthy Homes Rating System to identify 29 major hazards to health in the home, including the presence of lead and known asthma triggers.  

“Detroit’s aging housing stock presents many environmental health hazards, with lead paint dust presenting the primary hazard to vulnerable minority children living in low-income neighborhoods,” Thompson said. “Lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly devastating to developing children, and can cause significant health impacts over the course of their lives.”

The Center for Urban Studies — in partnership with Southeastern Michigan Health Association, CLEARCorps Detroit, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and the Detroit Health Department — will test two interrelated relocation models. 

“There is preliminary evidence that each type of relocation model can be done in more cost-effective ways than current abatements,” Thompson said. “If true, this would provide an alternative pathway to protecting families during ongoing delays to abatement.”

This will be achieved by first determining whether these policies are effective in reducing blood lead levels, he said, then measuring cost effectiveness and comparing the costs of relocation to those of current approaches. Fundamentally, Thompson said, this will allow to determine if these are more economically cost-effective solutions.

“If the Detroit Lead Technical Study demonstrates that relocation models of study are not only effective at reducing blood lead levels in children under 6 but are also cost effective, strategically, this would open up an alternative wing of policy for protecting children in Michigan and Detroit,” he said.

Detroit and other large, older cities have many children with elevated blood lead levels (EBLL) who continue to live in homes with high levels of lead and have no immediate access to homes without these hazards. This number far exceeds those of publicly funded lead abatements performed annually, creating a backlog. 

While code enforcement is producing additional abatements or interim controls through the Detroit Rental Registration Ordinance, it currently has no mechanism to target rental units where a child with an EBLL resides. Taken together, only a fraction of the population of children with lead poisoning have their residences addressed. 

“Many families are on long waiting lists for abatement services or have landlords unwilling to adhere to Detroit Rental Registration Requirements, which include lead clearance,” Thompson said. “There is a need for a cost-effective alternative to accompany abatement as a tool to provide safe residences for children in an expedient manner.”