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El-Sayed to Duggan: Halt Detroit demolitions, "willingly putting children in harm's way"

Apr 13, 2018

Abdul El-Sayed shows no sign of backing away from a feud with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan over the city’s building demolitions program.

The Democratic candidate for governor again slammed the program in a statement Friday, capping several days of verbal sparring with Duggan’s office. The back-and-forth followed El-Sayed’s appearance on Michigan Radio’s Stateside this week, when he said Detroit’s sweeping demolition blitz under Duggan was “poisoning kids with lead up until this year.”

El-Sayed was Duggan’s health department director in Detroit before leaving that job to run for governor in 2017. During his time there, El-Sayed spearheaded a study that showed a link between vacant home demolitions and elevated blood lead levels in some Detroit children.

Specifically, it found that living within 400 feet of a demolition site increased the odds of blood lead level elevation 20%. The odds increased 38% if there were two or more demolitions. The risk appeared to be limited to the summer months, when children are more likely to play outside or have open windows at home, increasing their exposure to potentially lead-laden dust from demolitions.

An El-Sayed-led task force also determined that “additional measures are warranted to reduce or mitigate the potential child lead exposures in the current demolition process,” and made 18 recommendations for such measures throughout the demolitions process.

Detroit has implemented some of those recommended measures, but not all of them. And while maintaining it has “the safest demolition protocols in the country,” the city is halting demolitions in some areas this summer, citing “a potential association between demolitions and elevated blood lead levels in children.”

But in a statement released Friday afternoon, El-Sayed called on Detroit to stop all demolitions during the summer months until it fully implements all the suggested protections.

“The Duggan administration plans to demolish homes in all but a few communities when they know the demolitions lead to lead poisoning. And they plan to do this without having enacted expert recommendations to protect kids. Yet another Michigan politician willingly putting children in harm's way,” El-Sayed said.

“Nothing will do short of a city-wide moratorium on demolitions during the summer months until all task force recommendations have been adopted, and the city can guarantee that it can demolish a home safely without exposing any of Detroit’s children to lead.”

Duggan’s office declined to respond to El-Sayed’s latest comments on the demolitions program. But earlier in the week, a spokesman released this statement:

"Now that he is running for political office, Dr. El-Sayed's story about his time at the city has changed, and irresponsibly so. He is misrepresenting the very studies to which he refers and even his own tenure as Detroit's Health Director.

"When Dr. El-Sayed worked for the Duggan administration he repeatedly praised the city's demolition team in emails for its commitment to public health in the demolition process, specifically around the issue of lead concerns. Shortly before he left the administration to run for Governor, he again praised members of the demolition team and other city departments studying the lead issue, saying it was an honor and a privilege to have worked along side them.

"The health of our residents always has been a top priority for this administration and continues to be."

The Duggan administration has torn down nearly 14,000 vacant Detroit homes since 2014 as part of a sweeping campaign. While Duggan touts it as a record-setting effort to remediate the blight that has haunted Detroit for decades, it has come under scrutiny for some shoddy practices and is the subject of an FBI investigation.

For his part, El-Sayed says he can understand why the Duggan administration would be “frustrated” by his criticism of the demolitions, noting the program has been “a constant thorn in the administration’s side.” He insists the timing of his vocal interest in this issue has to do with his concerns about the coming summer months, and his obligations as a doctor and public health professional.

“The science suggests that the city is not able to perform demolitions at scale safely, and that we have a responsibility to stand up and put the public’s health before politics,” El-Sayed said.

“We don’t want another Flint on our hands.”