Are We Doing All We Can to Prevent Lead Poisoning?

Are We Doing All We Can to Prevent Lead Poisoning?

Are We Doing All We Can to Prevent Lead Poisoning?

Lead paint poisons many more children than any other source. Are housing demolitions putting their health in danger?


At Byron’s one-year medical checkup this past summer at a clinic in Warren, a Detroit suburb, the pediatrician gave the infant a foot prick to test his blood for lead. The levels came back high—quite high.

“What does ‘high’ mean?” Byron’s mom, Beverly, remembers asking.

The pediatrician answered, “We like to see it under three. Five is cause for concern. And your child has 28.” That’s 28 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. But, he added, it might be a false positive; Byron would need a more accurate venous test.

Beverly called her husband, Robert, from the clinic’s parking lot and told him about the test. (Byron, Beverly, and Robert are the family’s middle names; they asked us not to use their full names because of the stigma associated with lead poisoning.) “I could tell he was shaken for sure,” she says. And then she drove her son to Detroit’s St. John Hospital for the venous lead test.

While she waited for the results to come back, Beverly started researching lead poisoning.

“Looking online is a super-, super-scary experience because you come across, like, the worst scenarios,” she says.

While lead is toxic to humans of any age, children and infants are particularly vulnerable. When a baby’s body absorbs lead, the body can then use that lead—rather than beneficial metals such as calcium or iron—to build its basic brain architecture. The effects of elevated blood-lead levels in infants can include learning disabilities, speech delays, hearing loss, lowered IQ, and increased hyperactivity and aggression. Even very small amounts of lead can cause neurological damage; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines five micrograms or more per deciliter as elevated blood lead (their guidelines were updated in 2012; prior to that, the “level of concern” was 10 micrograms)—but no level has been proven safe.

Once a baby is lead-poisoned, the family can do a lot to try to get the lead out of the child’s blood and to prevent further exposure, but, as Beverly now knows, “any damage that’s been done is irreversible.”

“I definitely felt sick to my stomach that my baby could have poison in his body,” she says.

When the hospital called with the venous test results, the diagnosis was confirmed: Byron’s blood-lead level was 21 micrograms per deciliter, more than quadruple the level considered to be an “elevated blood-lead level.”

Byron’s parents were stunned. Robert thought it was “insane.” Beverly lost her appetite for a week. They had no idea how their baby could have been exposed to so much lead.

“I kind of thought that it wouldn’t happen to me,” Beverly says.

A Silent Epidemic

Unlike Byron’s family, which is white and upwardly mobile, most families with lead-poisoned kids are poor and black. While, nationwide, only 3.2 percent of white toddlers have blood-lead levels of five micrograms or more per deciliter, that number climbs to 7.7 percent for black toddlers. Six percent of toddlers whose families live at or near the federal poverty line have elevated blood-lead levels, while just 0.5 percent of toddlers whose families earn more than that have elevated blood-lead levels.

Since the 1950s, lead poisoning has primarily affected poor children of color, says Gerald Markowitz, a professor at John Jay College and the City University of New York and one of the authors of Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children. That’s because—despite the current focus on lead-tainted water in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey—lead-based paint actually poisons many more children than any other source of lead, and poor black children are more likely to live in dilapidated housing with chipped and peeling paint.

Lead-based paint was outlawed in 1978, and, when it lies beneath an intact layer of latex paint, it’s less likely to cause harm. But when lead paint comes loose—when old wooden windows scratch off paint chips or when the paint on door frames and porches bubbles and cracks—children can get bits of leaded paint on their hands as they crawl on the floor and pull themselves up on windowsills and painted railings. Then, when they put their hands in their mouths—as healthy babies do—they ingest the lead.

Over the lifetimes of lead-poisoned children, the increased health care and special education needed to care for them; the lost lifetime earnings and tax revenue attributable to their disabilities; and the increased crime that has been shown to follow in lead poisoning’s wake will cost the country an estimated $181–269 billion.

“Lead poisoning has often been called the silent epidemic,” Markowitz says. “Tens of millions of children have been adversely affected by lead.”

Take Mikelle, the 4-year-old son of Lorene W., who lives in Grandale, Detroit. When Lorene adopted him a year ago, his blood-lead levels were in the 20s, and he was severely underweight: he weighed just 20 pounds. Though his lead levels are down to seven micrograms per deciliter now, and he’s gained some weight, he’s still hyperactive; he bounces around the room and can’t seem to focus on any one game or activity. And most of what he says is incomprehensible. He’s now in speech therapy and a special education program, both paid for by the state of Michigan.

Nationally, nearly 3 percent of children have blood-lead levels of 5 micrograms or more per deciliter—but, in Detroit, a city where more than 80 percent of residents are African American and nearly 40 percent live below the federal poverty line, that rises to 9 percent of children. In some ZIP codes, that figure can be as high as 20 percent.

Since 2010, blood-lead levels have been falling in most Detroit neighborhoods, thanks in part to city and state policies: laws that force landlords to abate the lead in their rental properties, grants that are distributed to low-income homeowners so they can eliminate lead hazards in their homes, and programs to increase testing.

But, in 2016, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the city’s blood-lead levels spiked. While this unsettling uptick coincided with increased testing of vulnerable populations, some critics say the sharp increase can’t be attributable to testing alone, and that the city is removing lead with one hand while adding it back with another.

For these critics, the blame for the spike lies with a federally funded “blight removal” program that is perhaps the biggest housing-demolition program in history.

Living With the Ruins of an Earlier Detroit

“We are taking the most blighted city in the United States and making it blight-free,” says Brian Farkas, with the Detroit Building Authority.

After decades of white flight, urban decline, and general neglect, construction is once again booming in downtown Detroit. But, for the rest of the city, recovering from half a century of immiseration is not easy, and most neighborhoods are still struggling. Abandoned homes have fallen into disrepair and now stand as burnt skeletons or rotten shells with trees growing through their crumbling roofs. Scrappers have broken in and pulled out any material of value. Drug dealers use vacant houses as their headquarters. Some old houses have become piles of rubble with bricks and concrete tumbling across the sidewalk.

In the 1950s, more than 1.8 million people called Detroit home. Today, the city has less than 700,000 residents—and homes for 1 million people who no longer live there. The consensus is that those vacant houses—or, at least, the 40,000 of them the city has slated for demolition—have got to go.

To pay for all those demolitions, the city of Detroit turned to the federal government. The money city officials were eyeing was the $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund, which was allocated by the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (what’s commonly known as Obama’s stimulus package) to help distressed homeowners pay their mortgages and back taxes and thereby avoid foreclosure. What Detroit and other Rust Belt cities argued was that the requirements for homeowners to receive funds were so onerous that most of the money would never be spent. An alternative way to help homeowners would be to give the funds to cities to clean up blight, thereby reducing crime, beautifying neighborhoods, and shoring up home values.

The Treasury Department looked at the data and agreed—and, in early 2014, Detroit received $50 million to spend on demolitions. Since then, the feds have allocated an additional $211 million for Detroit’s demos through 2020, and the city has already knocked down more than 10,000 homes. Most of that money came from the Hardest Hit Fund, along with some funds from Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program and Community Development Block Grant Program.

The Treasury has some rules about how the city can spend the money: The Detroit Land Bank has to acquire the structure before knocking it down; the structure has to be residential and contain four units or fewer; and the city cannot spend more than $25,000 demolishing it. The city doesn’t do the demolitions itself, instead soliciting bids from contractors to carry out the job.

The first blighted homes the city is trying to hit are the ones in densely populated neighborhoods with schools, businesses, and people—because the goal is “to make neighborhoods livable and to make them investment-grade,” Farkas says.

“Every demolition has a win, but some demolitions have more wins than others,” Farkas says. “If you knock down a house in the middle of a field with nothing around it, there’s a net positive. But you’d much rather have the demolition kitty-corner from a school, in front of a bus stop, and next to two occupied houses.”

Detroiters are, for the most part, thrilled. “I’m excited about it,” Eunice McGill told me when she learned the city would be knocking down some vacant houses on her block. “They need to do it because they’re talking about this big old Detroit coming back and we’ve rebuilt the city.… We don’t necessarily see it in the neighborhoods.… I’d like to see that.”

The problem with taking down tens of thousands of homes kitty-corner from schools, next to bus stops, and near houses that could be occupied by young families is this: Ninety-three percent of Detroit’s houses were built before 1978, which means they contain lead-based paint. When these homes are demolished, that paint can turn into lead dust, which can poison the very neighborhoods the city’s efforts are designed to help.

Making Demolitions Safe

The research is pretty clear: Housing demolition has been associated with increased blood-lead levels in children. That’s why the method used to demolish houses is so important.

The cheapest, fastest way to demolish a house is what’s known as a “dry” demolition: You come in with an excavator, smash the house to pieces, and cart away the rubble. That method sprays lead dust almost 600 feet in every direction from the demolition site, a swathe that can extend about 18 average Detroit housing lots away—a total area of about six football fields.

That’s how “a lot of demolition jobs—the routine ones across the country” are done, says David Jacobs, the former director of the Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, who researches the relationship between demolition and lead dust dispersal.

A slightly more expensive and time-consuming way to demolish a house is what’s known as the “wet-wet” protocol—which involves wetting the house down before and during the demolition to keep dust from spraying so far. That keeps lead dust to within an approximately 350-foot radius of the demolition—about 10 housing lots in each direction.

And then there’s the Baltimore Protocol, which was used to demolish more than 500 row houses in East Baltimore in 2004 and is still widely considered to be the safest way to knock down a house. The team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University that developed the protocol discovered that, by sheathing the house in plastic and keeping it wet with two to four hoses throughout the demolition, you can contain lead dust to a radius of just 60 feet from the demolition site, which is only two housing lots in each direction.

No city uses the Baltimore Protocol: not Detroit, not Cleveland, not Chicago. The City of Baltimore only incorporated elements of the Baltimore Protocol in its citywide demolition standards.

Brian Farkas, with the Detroit Building Authority, says the protocol wouldn’t be feasible to implement in Detroit.

“I don’t think any city in the country is faced with the unique situation Detroit is right now, where you’ve got potentially 40,000—now 30,000 left—single-family home sites scattered across the city,” he says. Detroit is trying to get all 40,000 demos done by the time the clock runs out on the Hardest Hit Fund by the end of 2020—so, he says, “We want to make this as efficient as possible so we can squeeze as much out of every contractor as we can at the lowest price possible.”

Instead of using the Baltimore Protocol, Farkas says, the city of Detroit sat down with the EPA, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and an epidemiologist from the University of Michigan and invented a new protocol.

“We had to craft a solution that was right for Detroit,” he says.

Detroit was able to develop its own housing-demolition protocol in the first place because no federal agency currently regulates demolitions for lead-dust control.

When Housing and Urban Development funds demolitions, it requires an environmental assessment both of the entire program and of each individual house. But the funding for most of Detroit’s demolitions came from the Treasury Department. And, when the Treasure funds blight elimination, it does not require that the cities and states receiving funding submit an environmental assessment or review to the agency.

The EPA regulates the demolition of houses that contain asbestos—but not houses that contain lead. The EPA’s Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule, which came into force in 2010, regulates lead dust containment during remodels and partial demolitions—but not full demolitions.

“Our regulations are focused on renovation, repair, and painting activities in residential homes and daycares,” says Tanya Hodge Mottley, the director of the chemicals division of the EPA’s National Program. “We’ve not done regulations that focus on [demolitions] yet at this time.”

In other words, “if you pull out and replace your front window, you have to have lead-abatement procedures,” explains Ayana Rubio, a data analyst at Data Driven Detroit. “But if you tear down the entire building, you don’t have to have anything in place.”

The end result, says Mary Sue Schottenfels, the executive director of CLEAR Corps Detroit, an organization that tackles lead poisoning, is that “there is nobody watching the hen house on demos.”

The Detroit Protocol

Here’s how a housing demolition in Detroit is supposed to go.

First, contractors are supposed to nail a big yellow poster on the house that reads, “City of Detroit and its Agencies will demolish this structure _____ within two weeks of _____.” The contractors should fill in the blanks with an address and a date.

Then, they’re supposed to leave door hangers for both next-door neighbors, the three houses across the street, and the three houses behind. The door hangers contain just skeletal information; they read, “To minimize inconvenience during demolition, please keep your doors and windows closed to minimize dust; keep pets and children inside.” They mention no health risks associated with demolition dust nor the possibility of cleaning dust so it won’t spread or get inside the house.

The day of the demolition, the contractors are supposed to break in the house’s roof, use a hose to wet the entire building from the inside, continue to spray the house while smashing it with an excavator, and use a hose to follow the claw loading debris into the truck. That debris is supposed to be gone within seven days.

After the demolition, the contractors then have 14 days to fill the hole with clean soil and an additional two weeks to level the lot and cover it with grass seed and a straw mat to mitigate the potential impact of any lead dust left at the site.

According to some critics, however, even if all of these steps are precisely followed, Detroit’s protocol doesn’t go far enough to protect public health and safety.

Take the door hangers. Two advocates—Erin Kelly, who, in 2015, worked at the nonprofit Detroit Future City, and Regina Royan, then an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan—thought that the city’s door hangers contained insufficient information about lead dust’s dangers and that more than eight neighbors should get notified prior to a demolition. After all, Detroit’s modified wet-wet protocol can spread lead dust over eight housing lots in each direction—not just the closest eight houses.

Kelly and Royan designed a new door hanger and presented it to the city, but the city did not adopt those door hangers.

That’s because, though Farkas says the bare-bones door hangers currently used by the city are a “first blush” and that “we know we need to increase the language,” the group that meets for two hours every month to discuss Detroit’s demo protocols and how to improve them has not “finalized the exact language” for improved door hangers.

Kent Murray, a geologist at the University of Michigan who studied lead dust fall from Detroit’s demolitions, says he would like to see the city doing something closer to the Baltimore Protocol, with two to four hoses and barriers preventing the spread of lead dust. He’s also concerned about the length of time that dry debris and open soil remain at a demolition site, leaving lead exposed to drift unchecked around a neighborhood.

Mary Sue Schottenfels, of Clear Corps Detroit, shares those concerns: “It takes a while for grass to grow, so then there’s an ongoing problem on windy days,” she says.

Furthermore, since many demolitions happen in the summer, Erin Kelly wonders if the grass seed the contractors lay down will ever grow. “Right now, it’s totally legit to throw down some seed or some hay and walk away,” she says. “Those seeds are going to—if they stay in place till September when it starts raining again, yeah, maybe it’ll work. But landscapes are on a slightly different cycle than demolition.”

If demolitions leave bare soil behind them, Schottenfels asks, “How often do kids play in that soil? Is a new house going to get built?”

No independent study of Detroit’s protocol has been conducted, but researchers at the University of Michigan worked with the city to study Detroit’s protocol. They completed their study in 2016 but would not release their results to The Nation; Royan, the epidemiologist and lead researcher on that study, wrote in an e-mail that “unfortunately, at this time our final results are awaiting publication, and so it would be inappropriate for those to be published elsewhere before they complete the peer-review process.”

The results the city did release reveal that, while a dry demolition deposits an average of 63.8 micrograms of lead dust per square foot at a demolition site, a “wet-wet” demolition deposits an average of 24.7 micrograms of lead dust per square foot, and, according to two separate studies, the Baltimore Protocol deposits between 1.8 and 6 micrograms of lead dust per square foot. The Detroit protocol deposits an average of 17.4 micrograms of lead dust per square foot at a demolition site—at least 2.9 times as much as the Baltimore Protocol.

“With good implementation of the protocol, including prewetting, directed water spray during demo activities, and limiting activity during windy days, we expect that the amount of dust and lead traveling off-site…to be very limited,” Stuart Batterman, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the study, wrote in an e-mail. That said, he added, the city’s protocol “depends on good compliance by the contractors.”

In a city of 143 square miles, with close to 20 demolition contractors, constantly changing demolition crews, and only six inspectors assigned to enforcing the city’s demolition protocol, the devil’s in the implementation.

Failing to Pass an Already Low Bar

After Byron’s parents learned he was lead-poisoned, they had a contractor come out to their house and test all its surfaces for the presence of lead. She found lead on the stairs down to the basement and up to the attic, places Byron doesn’t go much. She found lead-based paint in two door frames—one leading to the basement and one on the back pantry—and three windows—one in the master bedroom and two that were inside closets. And she found lead dust in all the window troughs and all over Byron’s bookcase, underneath his windows.

Since the house has had vinyl windows for 15 years, “a lot of that [lead dust] was probably blown from the wind outside when we have our screens open in the summer,” Beverly hypothesizes.

“I never actually really realized that, other buildings coming down, that just living near them could put me or my kid at risk. I just wasn’t aware that lead spread that much,” she says. “Some warning that the demos were happening would have been good so we could, like, shut our windows and take extra care to clean our windows.”

It’s nearly impossible to definitively identify the source of a given baby’s lead poisoning. Lead leaves no fingerprint linking it to paint or garden soil or water. A blood lead test “integrates all sources of exposure: diet, grandma’s house, playgrounds,” says the University of Illinois’s David Jacobs.

Furthermore, blood lead is a marker in time: A blood-lead level of zero means only that the child is not currently being exposed to lead, not that he never has been. “Most of the lead that we take into our bodies is either excreted or ends up in the bones, where it’s not easily measured,” Jacobs explains.

Still, Robert blames the demolitions for his son’s poisoning. In the months leading up to Byron’s diagnosis of lead poisoning, his parents saw several houses come down in their neighborhood. And Robert, a certified lead-safe contractor who specializes in historic renovation, says they did not happen according to the city’s specs.

“I’m still leaning towards, of course, the demolitions that were happening near us that were not properly handled,” he says.

In particular, he watched a house kitty-corner to his that was demolished by a city contractor: The family did not receive a door hanger, “nothing was wrapped up, no water used whatsoever. And then they just knocked it down.”

In fact, evidence that contractors are not following the city’s protocol abounds.

First, the yellow posters that are supposed to warn entire neighborhoods of imminent demolitions often do not have dates written in.

“The poster goes up; it’s there for months; and, then, one day, the house disappears,” Josh Scott, who lives in southeastern Detroit, told me.

Furthermore, many neighbors are not receiving door hangers prior to demolitions.

On Chalmers Street, in southeastern Detroit, Elisha Lee described the house that once stood across the street from her: “I left for work. The house was there. I came back. The house was gone. And we were not notified that they were going to tear it down; at least I wasn’t.” If she had been notified, Lee added, she might have bought it, fixed it up, and rented it.

Erin Kelly, formerly of Detroit Future City, says she knows of entire neighborhoods in northern Detroit where contractors distributed no door hangers. Though she doesn’t specifically know what outcome that had, she can say, “I’ve heard of residents leaving their windows open before the city had its great notification process in place and coming home to a house covered with dust on the inside.”

In fact, the Detroit Land Bank invited me to see a model demolition, where the workers knew a reporter was present—and even then the next-door neighbor had received no door hanger before the demo.

Of neighbors not receiving notification, Brian Farkas, with the Detroit Building Authority, says the agency is “trying our absolute hardest” and that “contractors who don’t adhere to our standards will be sanctioned.”

Not only are the neighbors not consistently being notified before demolitions; demolitions themselves are not consistently being carried out correctly.

Lyke Thompson, of Wayne State University; Mary Sue Schottenfels, of CLEAR Corps Detroit; Ayana Rubio, of Data-Driven Detroit; and Erin Kelly, formerly of Detroit Future City, all told me they had witnessed demolitions occurring without water. Some of them were able to send me photos; here’s one taken by Thompson:

Even at the press-friendly demo the Land Bank took me to see, as soon as the city representatives left and I wandered over to talk to the next-door neighbor, the worker in charge of spraying the debris with water as it was being loaded onto the truck put down his hose and started texting. I took a picture of the dust through the trees:

After a demolition, contractors are supposed to pick up the rubble within 48 hours. They don’t always; this pile of rubble, for example, was still on the ground more than a month after the contractor tore down the house:

By then, the debris was completely dry and any lead dust it contained could have been carried off by the wind.

All of which adds up to a lot more lead than even the city has allowed for potentially getting into the bodies of Detroit’s children.

The Canaries in the Coal Mine

Brian Farkas, with the Detroit Building Authority, says the city is trying to ensure compliance with its stated protocols.

“We have probably five or six contractors right now that are working their tails off to get back on schedule”—meaning that these contractors have left piles of rubble on the ground or open holes that need filling. “And they’re not allowed to do any more knockdowns. They’re not allowed to bid. We’re enforcing our standards, and you’re seeing a learning curve,” he explains—a learning curve that has continued for two and a half years of a seven-year program, a learning curve for more than 10,000 of the city’s 40,000 planned housing demolitions.

Detroit doesn’t have records of protocol violations from the first two years of its federally funded blight-removal program, according to documents obtained from a Freedom Of Information Act request. A lawyer for the Detroit Building Authority confirmed that the city only instituted a Policy on Contractor Discipline in April of 2016.

That month, the city hired six inspectors to enforce the city’s protocols. To arrive at demolitions, those liaisons have to coordinate with demo crews—so the crews always know when they’ll be watched. Furthermore, each field liaison is responsible for monitoring about 25 demos a week, and not just as they’re happening, but beforehand (to make sure the neighbors get notified) and afterwards (during the cleanup of the lot). Even if the liaisons didn’t regularly get pulled off their jobs for special projects (as Erin Kelly says they are), that would be a tough workload to manage.

The Detroit Land Bank declined to put me in touch with the city’s field liaisons, saying they are not trained to talk with the press.

As Detroit’s public-health director, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed ran a study looking at whether housing demolitions and increased blood lead-levels were correlated. (El-Sayed left the department earlier this month to pursue a gubernatorial bid.)

The results of that study have not yet been made public, but when he spoke with The Nation last year he did say that the risk of increased blood-lead levels from demolitions is a “theoretical short-term question” and added that, “in public health, we have to ask hard questions about where do we put our resources to create the best possible health. We know that abandoned homes cause a number of public-health challenges, creating a nidus for crime and other public health–limiting activities…. We now know that even walking by abandoned homes has some minuscule effect on mental-health outcomes that aggregates over time. And blight decreases property values, which decreases overall wealth, which limits the amount of things that people can do with their money that would otherwise maybe improve their health. All of those things affect public health.”

In short, he said, “There’s a bigger question out there which is, ‘If Detroit didn’t have so many blighted homes, would Detroit be a healthier city?’”

Dr. Kanta Bhambhani, director of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Lead Poisoning Clinic, says this is backward. “Children are not canaries,” she says. “You take the canary to the mine to measure the methane gas. That’s what’s happening to children. We are looking for lead after they get poisoned. We only find lead after they get poisoned. Why should that happen? We need to get rid of lead first so we never have to check these children for lead poisoning.”

A National Problem

This isn’t just Detroit. Detroit’s demolition program is the biggest—40,000 homes—but cities in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and South Carolina also have sizable programs funded by the Hardest Hit Fund.

Beyond federally funded demos in Rust Belt cities, developers in rapidly growing cities like Denver, Portland, Austin, and Seattle are leveling lots and building newer, bigger homes or multi-family townhouses. The EPA doesn’t regulate those demos either. The result is a patchwork of demolition protocols of varying safety across the country.

We actually have a model for how to do this better. The EPA could regulate lead the way it regulates asbestos. Over the course of the 20th century, exposure to asbestos was slowly recognized as a national public-health crisis—to this day, over 10,000 people die from asbestos exposure every year, largely as the result of workplace exposure that occurred decades ago. Using the Clean Air Act, the EPA wrote requirements for how to do a housing demolition when asbestos is present.

Thus, contractors hired by the city of Detroit test every house for asbestos before demolishing it, and, if asbestos is found, contractors can’t just level the house; they have to take down any parts of the house that contain asbestos slowly. Depending on how much asbestos is present, that process can add anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars to the cost of a demolition.

It’s not clear if Detroit is, in fact, following the EPA’s asbestos rules closely—but, because these are federal rules, there’s also an enforcement mechanism in place. The Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration is now conducting surprise inspections in order to ensure that workers aren’t exposed to asbestos.

At the state level, Michigan does require dust suppression, in theory. The standard is “no visible dust emissions.” But the state’s Department of Environmental Quality does not have the resources to enforce the statute. Detroiters could call the agency if they saw a demolition creating a dust cloud, but it’s unclear if they know to do so.

Proper lead abatement—closely following the Baltimore Protocol—wouldn’t even cost as much as proper asbestos abatement, David Jacobs says. Furthermore, he adds, “for every dollar you invest in lead hazard control you get back $17 in benefits. According to WHO, that cost-benefit analysis is even better than vaccines, so this stuff makes economic sense. It just needs to be enforced so we have a level playing field.”

The bottom line, Jacobs says, is that “We know how to solve this problem and we don’t.”

Even beyond federal enforcement, cities could be doing more. With 10,000 houses demolished over the past two and a half years, Detroit has now undergone one of the largest experiments in how far lead dust can actually spread under a modified wet-wet demolition protocol. In cities other than Detroit, at least 7,000 homes are slated to be demolished with Hardest Hit Fund money in the next few years, not to mention thousands more HUD-funded demolitions. If those cities want to learn how to improve their protocols, they need only look to Detroit’s successes—and failures.

For her part, Beverly says she wishes the city had at least notified her that houses would be coming down nearby, so that she could have better protected her son.

“I want him to be able to realize his full potential,” she says. “Just to feel like you’ve created this beautiful little person and then to feel like…you might have seriously damaged them before they’ve had a chance really to get off the starting block, it’s a horrible feeling.”

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