More than half of the students tested in Detroit Public Schools have a history of lead poisoning, which affects brain function for life, according to data compiled by city health and education officials.
The data also show, for the first time in Detroit, a link between higher lead levels and poor academic performance. About 60% of DPS students who performed below their grade level on 2008 standardized tests had elevated lead levels.
The higher the lead levels, the lower the MEAP scores, though other factors also may play a role.
The research — the result of an unusual collaboration between the city’s Department of Health & Wellness Promotion and DPS — also reveals that children receiving special education were more likely to have lead poisoning.
The data, involving tens of thousands of city children, underscore the persistent and troubling legacy of lead, even as the overall number of lead cases continues to fall in Detroit and across the nation.
June Jackson didn’t realize until it was too late that her daughter Taylor, now 12, had high lead levels as a toddler. “I feel bad, like it’s my fault,” Jackson said. The girl receives special education and still struggles with reading and memory problems, which her mother attributes to lead.
“For years, we’ve blamed the schools and the teachers for kids failing,” said Brenda Gelman-Berkowitz, a school social worker for the district. These new findings, she said, show the answer may be more complicated. “We haven’t seen this connection with lead before. But I see evidence of it everywhere.”
Nightmare of lead a reality for many families in Detroit
Reggie Cureton doesn’t recall pulling bits of lead paint off the wall near his crib as a toddler and eating it. For a long time, his parents didn’t notice.
He was a bright baby who sat up early, walked early and recognized letters and colors early. But between the ages of 1 and 2, a blood test showed he had 21 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood — more than double the level of concern set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now 9, Reggie is great at building with Legos but struggles with reading, memory and paying attention.
Reggie’s challenges are familiar to his mother, Jeanine, who has her own history of lead contamination — and to generations of families living in Detroit. Despite significant declines in Detroit, thousands of children continue to be diagnosed with lead poisoning each year, a by-product of older homes with lead-based paint, pervasive poverty and an often unhealthy diet.
‘These numbers are scary’
Now, a landmark study by the city health department and Detroit Public Schools of lead data and test scores shows that the higher the lead level, the worse a student’s scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program exam, or MEAP.
Overall, 58% of roughly 39,000 DPS students tested — 22,755 children — had a history of lead poisoning, according to the study.
Perhaps more startling: Of the 39,199 students tested as young children, only 23 had no lead in their bodies.
“These numbers are scary,” said Lyke Thompson, a Wayne State University professor who has studied lead poisoning in Detroit for more than a decade.
The correlation between high lead levels and low test scores carries particular resonance in Detroit, where students have fared poorly on academic achievement tests.
DPS students ranked last in the nation in 2009 on the National Assessment of Education Progress math test for fourth- and eighth-graders. The city’s MEAP scores are consistently among the lowest in the state.
“This is a crisis,” said Carole Ann Beaman, disabilities coordinator for DPS. “There is a clear connection between lead poisoning and academic problems, which is relevant to understanding achievement gaps and why schools are failing.”
Other factors — including poverty and parents’ level of education — may play a role. But the impact of lead on test scores has lingered in the shadows. Until now.
DPS emergency financial manager Robert Bobb said lead exposure is one factor that leaves some kids poorly prepared for school.
“Schools can be partners by, among other things, emphasizing reading early, as we have done, ensuring healthy foods in the cafeteria and making certain that physical education is universal,” Bobb said. “Sadly, these results are not a surprise,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, a former Detroiter and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at Duke University.
Miranda led http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1940087/” target=”_blank”>studies in North Carolina and Connecticut that linked lead exposure to lower reading scores. “People have gotten complacent about lead.”
No level is safe
In 1991, the CDC set 10 micrograms as its level of concern for lead in children, but dozens of studies have shown brain damage at lower levels.
Many experts count kids with levels of 5 micrograms as lead-poisoned. The CDC said in 2005 that there is no safe level of lead for children. Although there are many ways children are exposed, most cases are from paint in homes.
Last year, more than 5,000 cases of lead poisoning were diagnosed in Detroit children younger than 6. More than 800 of those kids had lead levels of 10 micrograms or higher.
Exposure to lead in young children damages developing brains — and its effects are permanent, so once a child has high levels, the harm is done. Detroit has long led the state in lead poisoning, consistently accounting for more than 50% of Michigan’s cases.
“This is an educational crisis, and we should be doing something about it,” said Randall Raymond, geographic information specialist for DPS who helped analyze the data.
School and health officials compared lead levels in children with student test scores on the 2008 MEAP exam to determine whether lead affected academic performance.
Such studies are rare because medical records are confidential. Schools usually don’t know which kids are poisoned.
Analysts were able to find lead test results for nearly half the current students in DPS (not every child is tested) and determine the schools and areas of the cities most affected.
Results also showed that kids in special education had higher lead levels.
WSU nursing professor Lisa Chiodo studied a group of Detroit children from birth to age 20. The study showed that kids with higher lead levels had lower IQs — findings consistent with decades of research nationally.
Children with lead poisoning can become discouraged. One study found these students are seven times more likely to drop out than those with low levels.
Because of problems with learning and memory, these children tend to be easily frustrated, inattentive and withdrawn, Chiodo said. By adolescence, this frustration can turn to aggression or delinquency.
Chiodo said it’s time to do something to help. “We need curriculums for lead-exposed kids,” Chiodo said. “We need interventions.”
A family affected
The Cureton family is well aware of the damage lead causes.
Mom Jeanine Cureton, now 26, was 2 1/2 when she was diagnosed with lead poisoning so severe she needed chelation, injections of chemicals that draw lead from the body. Her lead level was 87 micrograms.
“They told my mom not to expect much from me as far as learning ability,” she said. “But I had a praying mom who worked with me.”
Cureton didn’t finish high school, reads at a grade-school level and struggles with memory problems, but she hopes to finish her education and dreams of being a nurse.
When their son Reggie was diagnosed as a toddler with lead poisoning, she and her husband, Reginald, thought they were doing all the right things, including frequently mopping floors and window sills to keep lead dust down.
But their second son, Maurice, now 7, also had high lead levels. The culprit was lead dust in the home’s carpet, an assessment found.
That was two houses ago.
The foreclosed house they bought in March has lead, too, tests show. The family hopes to remediate it with the help of ClearCorps, a nonprofit program that tests homes and helps families get rid of lead by stripping, sanding and repainting walls and trim.
In the meantime, the parents say they do everything they can to keep their youngest children from getting lead poisoning, and they work to stimulate the brains of the two oldest.
They also moved the older boys out of DPS — where Reggie had been having difficulties — to the private Detroit Merit Academy, where students get fruit and veggie snacks, journals to log how much they read at home and specialized learning plans.
“We work with our kids,” said Reginald Cureton. That means reading books with them, working on phonics and vocabulary, a computer program to teach them Spanish, trips to the Detroit Zoo, growing a garden and leaving motivation tips on the refrigerator.
“We want to do things with and for our kids that we didn’t have,” Jeanine Cureton said.
‘Gives me hope’
Experts say the Curetons are on the right track in working to minimize lead’s damage.
Tomas Guilarte, chairman of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, led a 2003 study, which found that a stimulating environment could improve the learning in lead-poisoned rats. Experts are excited by the research, which has not yet been done on humans.
“That study gives me hope,” said researcher Miranda of Duke.
Miranda led a 2009 study in North Carolina that found lead exposure helps explain the achievement gap between African-American and white students in reading tests.
Similar studies have produced similar results in Chicago, Massachusetts and Connecticut, Miranda said.
Kids need intervention at an early age to help them overcome some of the effects of lead poisoning, several experts said.
WSU’s Chiodo and Teresa Holtrop, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, said they hope to get a grant this year for a computer program called CogMed. Studies have shown that working with the program 30 minutes a day for five weeks can improve children’s memories, which in turn improves learning.
The Curetons are upbeat about the prospects for Reggie and Maurice. Lately, the kids have been doing origami projects, folding paper into complex figures and shapes.
“Our kids are very persistent and don’t give up,” said Reginald Cureton. “Lead is still affecting them, but not to the point they can’t move forward.”
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