Meet Detroit’s parent lead activists

Meet Detroit’s parent lead activists

"All you know is this: You went through nine months of pregnancy, you got a healthy baby. So, some doctor’s telling you your kid tested positive for something. It’s devastating. At that point, you feel like time stops."

From left, Lloyd Toliver, 9, TaNiccia Henry and Ean Toliver, 1, on their front porch. Credit: Nick Hagen

From left, Lloyd Toliver, 9, TaNiccia Henry and Ean Toliver, 1, on their front porch. Credit: Nick Hagen

TaNiccia Henry moved into her grandparents’ home to care for her ailing grandfather about twenty years ago. The home, located in Detroit’s historic Herman Kiefer neighborhood, is more than a century old. 

In 2013, her grandson Lloyd was born and moved into the home with Henry, who became his primary caregiver. It took a few years for Henry to secure health insurance for her grandson, and by the time she took him to the doctor for the first time, he was behind on his vaccinations and she had concerns that his hair had stopped growing and about discoloration on his skin. Henry also worried that Lloyd wasn’t reaching all of the milestones he should to be ready for kindergarten.

She asked for a lead test.

What the doctor found was alarming. A finger-prick test revealed a blood lead level of 32 micrograms per deciliter, far above the five mcg/mL action level called for by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A follow-up confirmatory venous blood test showed a blood lead level of 18 mcg/dL. 

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can lead to problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech. Exposed kids may have reduced IQ and attention problems, which can impact them throughout their lives. Once a child is identified as having an elevated level of lead, it’s imperative to identify and reduce sources of exposure from the child’s environment and to take measures — such as through diet and iron supplements — to bring lead levels down. There is no safe blood level for lead.

Henry immediately began working with a Detroit Health Department public health nurse put in place a rigorous cleaning routine to reduce lead dust. She made sure Lloyd consumed as many fresh fruits and iron-rich vegetables as possible (fortunately, he liked to eat vegetables!) and stopped buying the sugary pre-made Kool-Aid he enjoyed. 

Very slowly, Lloyd’s lead levels came down over about 18 months. Today, Lloyd is 9 years old, and his blood lead levels are below the CDC’s action level. With some additional help at his Detroit charter school through his individualized education program (IEP), his reading skills are improving.

As she learned how to help her grandson, Henry became involved with DLEAD. This caregiver-led advocacy group aims to educate Detroit parents about lead poisoning, lead remediation and available resources. Henry was one of the early members of the group. 

“[DLEAD is] a godsend,” Henry told Planet Detroit. The main benefit for Henry has been education on lead’s impacts, how to reduce risk, and help others who have been exposed. “When you know better, you do better. I’m one of those people that whatever I learn, I gotta spread the word and pass it on. I believe in each one, teach one.”

DLEAD was launched in May of 2019 as a Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies program under the leadership of Director Lyke Thompson. Iselda Esquival serves as the group’s coordinator. 

“Our group came together as parents that have children with elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs),” Esquival told Planet Detroit. “We want to educate; we want to bring awareness to families. And we want to advocate on things we’re passionate about.”

She said that more than 60 families have engaged with DLEAD since its inception, mainly arriving through monthly referrals from the Detroit Health Department. Esquival receives 8-18 referrals every month of parents whose child tested positive for an EBLL and who have agreed to be contacted. She reaches out via text, email and phone and invites them to attend the monthly meetings. In 2020, 598 children tested positive for an EBLL — a number that was 36% lower than the previous year due to a decline in testing amid the pandemic.

The parents started by setting priorities for advocacy. Five top issues emerged include: 

  • Universal blood lead level testing for all children under the age of six in Michigan, 
  • Better enforcement of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP Rule)
  • Relocation of children who required hospitalization for lead poisoning, 
  • Better data sharing about homes where lead exposures have occurred among city and state agencies, and 
  • Better enforcement of the city of Detroit’s 2010 lead ordinance for rental properties.

In April, DLEAD members participated in Michigan Lead Education Day, a ten-year-old event created to educate Michigan lawmakers about lead exposure issues in the state. Michigan. Nine families from Detroit participated in advocacy training through a Lead Impacted Families training program from Grand Rapids, Flint and Dearborn, in partnership with Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan and the Ecology Center. The training helps parents learn how to speak with lawmakers and the news media to advocate for policy change.

Lloyd, 9, plays a game on a phone in his family’s living room while Ean watches. Credit: Nick Hagen

DLEAD also reached out to city and county officials and, in early 2021, secured the adoption of resolutions by both the Detroit City Council and the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, supporting their top five priority measures. The city and county resolutions support universal lead testing for all children in Detroit and Wayne County (currently, only Medicaid-enrolled children must be tested, and testing has declined amid the pandemic). Both resolutions support the enforcement of the RRP rule by the EPA and the state. 

In addition, the city resolution calls for aggressive enforcement of its rental code by the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED), including bringing staff levels up to meet the need. It aims to increase funding levels for lead prevention activities in the Detroit Health Department. It also calls for enhanced data sharing between the city, state and county.

Councilman Scott Benson told Planet Detroit he introduced the resolution because he appreciates the importance of making a dent in the impact of lead on Detroit’s kids. “I have a familiarity with how [lead-based paint] impacts children Detroit and [the importance of] having a lead-free environment. Lead paint is dangerous for children, so I support the advocates who want to keep our children safe.” 

However, he noted, the resolution is not binding, and more resources will be necessary to bring staffing levels up to where they should be to meet needs for code enforcement, housing rehab and public health outreach.

In addition to advocacy, parents receive primary education and group support on caring for their kids exposed to lead and prevent further exposure.

Taking these steps is empowering for parents, according to Esquival — and that’s important for parents who feel overwhelmed and shocked by the situation they find themselves in.

“Parents participate because they get a lot of education and awareness and information,” Esquival said. For example, pediatrician Dr. Teresa Holtrop recently presented to the group. Two new parents were excited to learn about ways to bring down their children’s blood lead levels through diet and learning appropriate cleaning techniques for lead dust. 

“The two new parents that attended were like, ‘Wow, like this is information that I didn’t know,’ it was information that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten,” Esquival said. “They feel more at ease because they’re hearing from other parents who’ve kind of already been through it before and are learning the process, so I think being part of this is somewhat comforting to them. Other parents have children with elevated blood lead levels and, they learn, ‘I’m not the only one feeling this way.”

Lead-based paint flaking off the front of TaNiccia Henry’s home. Credit: Nick Hagen

Cierra Cole was one of those parents who felt overwhelmed and frightened when she found out her son had an EBLL shortly after moving into a new rental property.

“All you know is this: You went through nine months of pregnancy, you got a healthy baby. So, some doctor’s telling you your kid tested positive for something. It’s devastating. At that point, you feel like time stops. You like running in circles. You’re frustrated. Especially when you got all these people coming into your house, checking your house, checking the walls, checking the windowsills, checking the toys.”

DLEAD kept calling and texting her, and she finally came to a meeting. And she kept coming. 

“Talking to other parents helped me realize I wasn’t the only person dealing with this,” she said. These days, her son is doing much better. His blood lead levels are below the action level, and he’s attending school, although he struggles with learning deficits. Cole still makes time for DLEAD because she wants to help other parents, although she also feels like she wants to move on with her life, and sometimes DLEAD is a reminder of the pain she’s been through.

“But I still help connect and advocate because I’m not out the woods,” she told Planet Detroit. “I still live in Detroit, and the issue isn’t solved. These homes are old. Our future children need this city to clear all these homes of lead or tear them down.”

For Henry, every person she educates through her activism with DLEAD is a success. She calls herself a “silly person”; she likes to tell jokes to lighten the mood and connect with people. But when it comes down to it, lead is no joke, she said. And she makes sure that she educates people so they become aware of the gravity of the situation.

“I tell my story,” she said. “I tell people what it does to the human mind… to the human body—the consequences for the young people. Jails and prisons are full. And I’m just curious as to how many of those people are really in prison or dead because they were mentally compromised by lead.”

Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead & Asthma in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak