Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder Thursday proposed a $12 million plan to reconnect the city of Flint to the Detroit water system in order to receive Lake Huron water. But advocates say it's not enough.
Snyder's proposal, which is expected to be approved by the Legislature, comes after testing found water at Flint schools had lead levels above federal safety standards.
Snyder's commitment is one of few examples of increased government spending on lead mitigation and lead-poisoning prevention efforts.
Funding for the children's lead-screening program for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was slashed 93% from $29.2 million a few years ago. Last year, the program increased to around $15 million. The number of children tested has fallen by more than half over the years.
According to a report by the Columbia, Md.-based National Center for Healthy Housing, the loss of funding meant key positions were slashed, most notable among them were outreach and education programming in vulnerable populations.
“Funding goes up and down in waves,” said pediatrician Jennifer Lowry, director environmental health center at 301-bed Children's Mercy Kansas City (Mo.) hospital. She participates in lead-screening efforts in both Kansas and Missouri.
“Kansas has no lead program,” Lowry said. “Missouri thinks it's an important one to have.”
Federal funding fell at the same time the CDC halved its standards for elevated levels from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood.
“When they reduced it to 5, that redefined half a million children as having an elevated level,” Lowry said. “That's the same year they took all the money away.”
When screening identifies a child with a high level of lead in their blood it usually triggers a home investigation where trained personnel can spot sources of lead exposure and take steps to mitigate it.
Lowry said many Kansas physicians were still screening because it was considered the right thing to do, but she feels this may be falling off. She believes that, as Kansas decreases its ability to do home investigations, doctors are decreasing lead screening out of a feeling that it's an exercise in futility.
“That's my theory,” she said.
Lowry is working on an American Academy of Pediatrics committee updating the group's lead policy. She says that update should be completed in a few months. The nation's lead programs tend to be reactive, she explained, so the AAP is trying to change the focus to prevention.
“There is no safe blood level for lead, so let's prevent the exposure from happening in the first place,” Lowry said.
Missouri received four grants totaling almost $9 million out of the $112.3 million in grants awarded by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes in 2014. While that office's budget includes some money for research and home asbestos, mold and radon abatement, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said the bulk goes toward lead-abatement efforts in low-income housing.
The office's budget has fallen from $167 million in fiscal 2005 to its current level of $110 million. The Obama administration has proposed increasing it by $10 million in fiscal 2016. Republican leaders in Congress have proposed cutting it by $35 million.