PEOPLE BEFORE POLITICS: Getting the Lead Out Senator Roger Kahn and Saginaw Mayor Joyce Seals Unite to Forge Landmark Legislation

Posted In: Politics, State, Local, News, Local,   From Issue 653   By: By Robert E Martin and M Thompson

24th January, 2008     0

Saginaw County political and public health leaders were not surprised, but very proud of one instance where Michigan government seemed to actually 'work'.

They watched lead contamination from imported toys grab headlines during the holiday season, and felt pride that they oversee one of the state's model efforts to prevent poisoning of young children.

Michigan's new Lead in Toys law, with prime sponsorship from Senator Roger Kahn and Representative Andy Coulouris, will require storeowners found guilty of selling dangerous items to pay gradual penalties.

Fines are up to $50,000 for the third offense, with Michigan being the only state other than California and Illinois to have laws on the books and a process for enforcement in place.

"This really ought to be called The Joyce Seals Law," comments Kahn, who points to the current Saginaw Mayor's early call to action on the issue - the latest example of the Saginaw area standing at the statewide forefront.

Six years ago, Saginaw Mayor Joyce Seals used her role with the interfaith Ezekiel Project, which is composed of 20 churches of various denominations - to push for a 'Lead in Homes' state statute that had original sponsorship from Carl Williams, the former state rep.
"Before the year 2000 I read an article about a parent suing their insurance company because the child wasn't allowed to be tested for lead poisoning," explains Seals.

"Ezekial tried to convene HMO's and doctors together in order to get legislation going that would have a positive impact on our children & community. A lot of them came out kicking and screaming, but the Governor finally did sign the legislation."

"Prevention is the best insurance and you need to get to the root of the problem ahead of time, so eventually objections started to fade, although we did anger quite a few people and are still dealing with that anger today."

Jennifer Granholm, new as governor in 2003, pledged to act at a massive Ezekiel conference and chose Saginaw for her locale to sign the bill.

As far back as 1997, the County Department of Public Health was winning its first grant for lead hazard abatement and education.  A young Pamela Pugh Smith was tapping her college studies to serve as lead poisoning prevention director, while Dow Chemical retiree Stan Gorzinski was filling the expert role of environmental toxicologist.

The risks of lead paint poisoning to small children and toddlers finally are above the radar.

"Studies into mineral & heavy metal poisonings have been ongoing since the turn of the century," notes Kahn. "For us specifically, they've been very well studied."

"One case study that will help build public understanding is the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. His paintings are known for their swirling colors, and studies show this is what happens to a child's vision," continues Kahn. "Van Gogh used to lick his paint brushes and as he grew older, his paintings became more and more surreal."

Van Gogh killed himself when he was 37 years old. He also is known for cutting off a portion of his ear in personal despair.

Established symptoms include brain damage, learning disabilities, mental retardation, stunted growth, behavior problems, and more.
"I worked for the Michigan Dept. of Education at the state level and we were looking at special education statistics that showed a large number of low income students in those programs," relates Seals, "and it never dawned on me that there may be a correlation between students living in lead laden houses and symptoms of hyperactivity and learning disabilities and how this could all tie in with lead poisoning." Teamwork has led to more Saginaw County children being tested. Homes and apartments have been inspected and cleansed of hazards. Public awareness gradually has been built.

For example, avoiding toys with lead paint won't help much if the home itself has hazards, and material testing of toys should be enjoined with blood tests for children as soon as the first birthday.

Free blood test sites are the Public Health Headquarters at 1600 North Michigan, the Birch Run Health Center at 8425 Main Street, and the St. Charles Health Center at 120 North Vine Street. The information number is 758-3733.

For Public Health ongoing case management, the number is 758-3853.

Meanwhile, various sources are sponsoring or hosting toy test sites. State Representative Ken Horn recently conducted such an event at Zauel Library in Saginaw Township.

Most scientists and doctors agree that the advanced laboratory x-ray technology at these sites is vital, because home test kits that simply change a stick's color are unreliable.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that in tests with more than 100 sticks, half produced false negatives.
Measurement of symptoms also can cause confusion. Does a child simply have a headache or stomachache, for example, or are these signs of lead poisoning? What about attention deficit and/or hyperactive behavior? In some cases, say doctors, no symptoms exist until irreversible brain or spinal damage has taken hold.

This is why the Michigan Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Commission has released a report that repeatedly states: "While numerous activities to test and treat lead poisoning are important, elimination of the hazard is the only way to prevent childhood lead poisoning."

In full circle, this goes back to testing the homes and the toys, as well as the children.

Numbers Down, Still Troublesome

The United States has more than 300,000 young children at major risk of lead poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This count marks a sharp drop from 890,000 during the early 1990s and even more before then, states the National Center for Healthy Housing.

Still, the federal government and local advocates are pushing ahead with a goal to totally eliminate lead poisoning as a major public health concern, similar to smallpox or polio, by 2010.

National numbers for at-risk children include 20,000 in Michigan and more than 1,000 in Saginaw County alone. Testing of children in older housing, both inner city and rural, has shown that about 4 to 5 percent either have lead poisoning or are at major risk.

California and Illinois are the only states other than Michigan with specific lead toy laws, based on Google Internet searches, although executives in states such as Connecticut also have taken strong steps.

Kahn and Williams engaged in a bitter 2006 fight for an open Michigan Senate seat. But before that, when both were state representatives, Seals says she would call them together for cooperative breakfast sessions to review the latest in anti-lead initiatives.

"I phoned both Roger & Carl up in the middle of an election campaign and said regardless of who wins we need legislators educated on this issue," asserts Seals. "Federal legislators were resistant so I felt we should start at the state level. Consequently, Ezekial sent every candidate information on lead poisoning and toys."

"Joyce phoned me up and said it didn't matter who won the election because this issue was about our kids, which is absolutely true," states Kahn.

The Lead in Toys law is not a sudden rush as a result of the holiday publicity. It has been in the works since 2006, undergoing constant review by legislators and lobbyists and business leaders.

"This should not be a political issue," Kahn says. "Our children are cherished by us all."

"Nor should it be assumed that lead poisoning is a 'poverty' issue," adds Seals. "There is a case in Saginaw Township involving a large home being renovated where a small baby started exhibiting lead poisoning symptoms, so you need to get a Hepa vacuum. The Health Department will even loan one to you, by the way."

Seals notes that while Ezekiel members originally pursued only household lead hazards in 2003, they became alert to lead toy dangers as far back as 2005.

"We felt that we were starting to keep the lead out at the front doors of our homes, and then lead in the toys was sneaking in the back door," she says.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission gradually caught up. Last year the commission recalled more than 70 children's items numbering more than 10 million units. The count was up sharply from 20 items in 2006, 14 in 2005 and 9 in 2004.

An estimated 80 percent of toys sold in the United States are made in China, where wages are small and currency value is held in check to forestall two-way trade.

"They're poisoning our kids, and at the same time they're stealing our jobs," Kahn says. "There are even reports of Chinese toys being coated with date rape drugs, so we need to set standards not only as a State, but as a Nation."

"This is what the bill I sponsored accomplishes," he continues, "but only for lead. We now need to include other areas with oversight, inspection, failure to perform, and protection."

Coulouris agrees, with daughter Alexandra approaching her second birthday.

"When 'The Little Engine That Could' becomes 'The Little Engine That Could Poison' there is no greater reminder that we must be extremely vigilant when it comes to protecting our children," says Coulouris, who is married to Natasha Coulouris, the county's public health officer.

Seeds for Commitment

Lead in the United States was removed from paint, and also from gasoline and other substances, during the late 1970s. Still, years passed before more awareness grew of lead's effects on young children.

The Health Department was soon joined  by the Field Neurosciences Institute through St. Mary's Hospital, and Stan Grozinski signed on as the toxicologist. He had done product testing for Dow Chemical but had no role in the ongoing dioxin controversy.

Grozinski took oversight of home inspections and work orders for lead prevention. He estimates today that he has entered nearly 2,000 houses and apartments. Some conditions reflect obvious neglect, such as peeling paint and loads of chips on floors, and he has testified in court against absentee property owners.

Other source risks are more subtle, such as in soil near driveways where car exhaust spewed in the old days, or in antique bathtubs where enamel is wearing thin.

"I was not surprised when the toys started getting all of that attention last year, because I've been telling people about their toys for the past 10 years," Grozinski says.

Smith and Grozinski say the goal in poison prevention is not to make a house lead-free, but to concentrate on problem areas. For instance, a top-quality vacuum is needed to pick up paint chips and dust. Door and window areas require the most care because of the ongoing friction, but any sort of paint removal should begin with wetting the surface in order to limit dust.

Funds Remain Scant

Pugh and her Health Department teammates have landed lead prevention funds from sources that include the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and the Michigan Department of Health.

As a result, Saginaw County's statistics for child testing and for lead abatement are ahead of state averages.

Still, much more work lies ahead. Pugh reports that 173 housing units have received abatement or interim control.  However, the county has about 30,000 units built before 1960, when use of interior lead-based paint was most prevalent.

The state lead poisoning commission reports that early testing of children in anti-poverty programs is at 65 percent, but the overall rate remains near 20 percent.

Statewide spending also tells a stark story. Consider that:
(1) State commissioners estimate that 1.3 million occupied housing units are in need of lead abatement at an average cost of $9,000. Their report doesn't complete the math, but this comes to $11.7 billion.   

(2) This year's anti-lead budget is $2 million, including a modest $100,000 from the state general fund. This sum equates to about $1.50 for each housing unit at risk.

(3) To promote more anti-lead work, the commission would reap another $6 million per year with surcharges of 25 cents on a gallon of paint and 35 cents on a home mortgage sale. Tax credits would add $60 million annually to the effort. Commissioners say with fewer children exposed to lead, cost savings would more than offset the higher budget. The Kahn-Coulouris Bill does not address these proposals.

 (4) Even with the tax credits in place, the estimated number of lead-abated units would come to 2,500 per year, based on public response to a similar program in Massachusetts. At this rate, it would take more than 250 years to reach every lead-hazard housing unit existing now in Michigan.

Grozinski notes that he once read an American Medical Association Journal lead paint report with a headline, Too Little, Too Late, but he does not take such a harsh view.

"We've done our best and our doing our best with the resources that are available," he says.

More Need for Action

Kahn is a doctor who recalls examining children with major signs of lead poisoning. He would observe a thin gray ellipse inside of the lips.
"Paint chips taste sweet," he says, and is especially tempting to a toddler who already has hand-to-mouth instincts.

Risks for children go beyond toys, he notes. Not only do many imported lunch boxes contain lead, but also the peanut butter in a sandwich may act as a solvent. The new lead in toys law is only a start, he says, other substances such as barium and mercury also create health risks.  He will aim to draft a major overall proposal.

"Substance by substance is not the way to go about it," Kahn says. "We placed into the law tighter standards for lead if one is established, but we need to address other substances such as barium, arsenic, and mercury," adds Kahn. "A teaspoon of mercury could poison everybody in the country." "I feel bad that our state legislature has to protect us from things allowed to the come into the shore of the United States," notes Seals. "It should not be." This is a sentiment shared by Kahn. "Our manufacturers are prohibited from putting lead in toys at a higher cost to us. We need to adopt standards between free trade and fair trade. Fair trade is essential. It's ludicrous to allow countries with no environmental standards, no recognition of the minimum wage, and no child labor laws to send their products back here to destroy American jobs and injure the health of American children. We can't control federal standards, but we can hold manufacturers to Michigan standards."

Various groups are pushing for federal action. Possibly the most political among them is the Sierra Club, which asserts that the Consumer Product Safety Commission makes strong efforts but lacks EPA support.

For example, the EPA's annual outlay for faith-based lead prevention projects is $5.4 million, the equivalent of less than a half-hour for the Iraq War.

Stories of child tragedies have stirred the public. A main example is the February 2006 death of a Minnesota 4-year-old from ingesting a lead-based pendant, which was attached to the laces of Reebok sneakers made overseas.


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