Detroit schools illustrate the dangers of toxins in schools

27 Sep

Detroit is dealing with a host of problems at this moment in history. The Detroit school system not only faces academic and financial challenges, but it is at the center of a lead crisis which threatens the health of children attending Detroit schools. Jaclyn Zubrzycki writes in the Education Week article, Lead-Exposure Problems Spotlighted in Detroit:

Lead has been linked to negative trends in school performance, especially among poor and African-American students, in Chicago, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Texas, among other places, but there is little research on how schools can help affected children.

A Lead ‘Epicenter’

One of the new studies pulls together public-health and education data to draw attention to the large numbers of Detroit children who have been exposed to lead.

Detroit is one of the epicenters for lead in the country,” said Jane L. Nickert, the director of the childhood-lead program in the city’s department of health and wellness. “And educators don’t know what they’re dealing with because no one’s told them.”

Ms. Nickert was not part of the new study, which was conducted by researchers from her agency, the Detroit Public Schools, the University of South Florida in Tampa, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and MPRO, a nonprofit health-care group.

It demonstrates a link between blood lead levels and lower performance on the Michigan Assessment of Educational Progress, or MAEP: Students with an early-childhood blood lead level of 10 milligrams per deciliter of blood—about half of what Reginald’s was at age 1—were more than twice as likely to score less than proficient on all three subjects in the state assessment than students with less than 1 milligram per deciliter, after controlling for factors like family income and maternal education.

The research is being reviewed for publication by the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers connected the health records and the 2008-10 test scores of 21,281 students in grades 3, 5, and 8 in the Detroit school district. They found widespread lead poisoning in the district, including some schools where 54 percent of the population had elevated blood lead levels, said Randall E. Raymond, a geographic information specialist in the district’s office of research, evaluation, assessment, and accountability.

National Challenges

The Detroit research comes as advocates nationwide are calling for more awareness about recognizing and ameliorating lead’s impact on students, and for an increase in funding from the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently set a lower threshold for identifying children as lead-poisoned but cut funding for lead education and surveillance programs from $29 million a year to $2 million a year.

The CDC last spring lowered the level of lead considered dangerous from 10 milligrams of lead per deciliter of blood to 5, responding to years of research showing detrimental impacts from lower levels of exposure.

Related Stories

The research is being reviewed for publication in American Journal of Public Health.

Moi wrote about Toxic dangers in schools:

Tim Walker and Cindy Long report in NEA Today:

An estimated 14 million American children attend public schools that are in urgent need of  extensive repair or replacement and have unhealthy environmental conditions, including poor air quality, unsafe drinking water and inadequate safety systems.

The Agency for Toxic Effects and Disease Registry (ATEDR) has some good information about the effects of toxins on children.

In Principles of Pediatric Environmental Health: What Are Special Considerations Regarding Toxic Exposures to Young and School-age Children, as Well as Adolescents? ATEDR reports:

Young Child (2 to 6 years old)

With the newly acquired ability to run, climb, ride tricycles, and perform other mobile and exploratory activities, the young child’s environment expands, as does the risk of exposure.

Many of a young child’s toxic exposures may occur from ingestion. If the child’s diet is deficient in iron or calcium, the small intestine avidly absorbs lead….

School-aged Children (6 to 12 years old)

School-aged children spend increasingly greater amounts of time in outdoor, school, and after-school environments. They may be exposed to outdoor air pollution, including

  • widespread air pollutants,

  • ozone, particulates, and

  • nitrogen and sulfur oxides.

These result primarily from fossil fuel combustion. Although these pollutants concentrate in urban and industrial areas, they are windborne and distribute widely. Local pockets of intense exposure may result from toxic air and soil pollutants emanating from hazardous waste sites, leaking underground storage tanks, or local industry. One example of a localized toxic exposure adverse effect was seen in children exposed to high doses of lead released into the air from a lead smelter in Idaho. When tested 15 to 20 years later, these children showed reduced neurobehavioral and peripheral nerve function [ATSDR 1997b]….

In addition, some school age children engage in activity such as

  • lawn care,

  • yard work, and

  • trash pickup.

These and other work situations may put them at risk for exposures to hazardous substances such as pesticides used to treat lawns.

Adolescents (12 to 18 years old)

But nothing more than just adolescent behavior may result in toxic exposures. Risk-taking behaviors of adolescents may include exploring off-limit industrial waste sites or abandoned buildings. For example, in one reported case, teenagers took elemental mercury from an old industrial facility and played with and spilled the elemental mercury in homes and cars [Nadakavukaren 2000]. Teens may also climb utility towers or experiment with psychoactive substances (inhalant abuse, for example). Cigarette smoking and other tobacco use often begins during adolescence. For more information about adolescent tobacco use see CDC Office of Smoking and Health at

Compared with younger children, adolescents are more likely to engage in hobbies and school activities involving exposure to

  • solvents,

  • caustics, or

  • other dangerous chemicals.

Few schools include basic training in industrial hygiene as a foundation for safety at work, at school, or while enjoying hobbies.

Many adolescents may encounter workplace hazards through after-school employment. Working adolescents tend to move in and out of the labor market, changing jobs and work schedules in response to employer needs or their own life circumstances [Committee on the Health and Safety Implications of Child Labor 1998]. In the United States, adolescents work predominately in retail and service sectors. These are frequently at entry-level jobs in

  • exterior painting of homes,

  • fast-food restaurants,

  • gas stations and automotive repair shops,

  • nursing homes,

  • parks and recreation, and

  • retail stores.

Such work may expose adolescents to commercial cleaners, paint thinners, solvents, and corrosives by inhalation or splashes to the skin or eyes. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimated that, on average, 67 workers under age 18 died from work-related injuries each year during 1992-2000 [NIOSH 2003]. In 1998, an estimated 77,000 required treatment in hospital emergency departments [NIOSH 2003]….

Metabolic Vulnerability of Adolescents

Metabolic processes change during adolescence. Changes in cytochrome P450 expression [Nebert and Gonzalez 1987] result in a decrease in the metabolism rate of some xenobiotics dependent on the cytochrome CYP (P450) – for example, the concentration of theophylline increases in blood [Gitterman and Bearer 2001]. The metabolic rate of some xenobiotics is reduced in response to the increased secretion of growth hormone, steroids, or both that occur during the adolescent years [Gitterman and Bearer 2001]. The implications of these changes on the metabolism of environmental contaminants are areas of intense research. By the end of puberty, the metabolism of some xenobiotics achieves adult levels.

Puberty results in the rapid growth, division, and differentiation of many cells; these changes may result in vulnerabilities. Profound scientific and public interest in endocrine disruptors – that is, chemicals with hormonal properties that mimic the actions of naturally occurring hormones – reflects concerns about the effect of chemicals on the developing reproductive system. Even lung development in later childhood and adolescence may be disrupted by chronic exposure to air pollutants, including

  • acid vapors,

  • elemental carbon,

  • nitrogen dioxide, and

  • particulate matter [Gauderman et al. 2004].


Principles of Pediatric Environmental Health
What Are Special Considerations Regarding Toxic Exposures to Young and School-age Children, as Well as Adolescents?

Course: WB2089
CE Original Date: February 15, 2012
CE Expiration Date: February 15, 2014
Download Printer-Friendly version Adobe PDF file [PDF – 819 KB]

This society will not have healthy children without having healthy home and school environments.

A healthy child in a healthy family who attends a healthy school in a healthy neighborhood ©

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

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