Nick Farr is the Executive Director of the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing, a Maryland non-profit corporation. The Centerís mission is to help sharply reduce childhood lead poisoning while preserving the nationís stock of affordable housing. It developed the Department of Housing and Urban Developmentís Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing and is evaluating the cost and effectiveness of the lead hazard control strategies of state and local recipients of HUDís lead hazard control grants. The Center has carried out a number of research projects in lead hazard control and provided training and technical assistance to cities and non-profit organizations in developing and carrying out lead hazard control programs.
Childhood Lead Poisoning
Childhood lead poisoning is still the number one environmental disease of children. According to estimates of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention almost 900,000 children have lead in their blood at or above ten micrograms per deciliter, the official level of concern. These children are likely to suffer from a lowering of their IQs and attention spans, leading to poor school performance, reduced job related capacity and increased adolescent delinquency. Recent research suggests that blood lead levels well below ten micrograms per deciliter are also associated with these problems. So the number of children in harms way could be in the millions. Since African American children are five times as likely to be poisoned than white children, childhood lead poisoning is also a major environmental justice problem.
The vast majority of children who have elevated blood lead levels became ill by ingesting lead from deteriorated paint in household dust or contaminated soil in normal play activities. Young children play on floors, at windows or in their yards. Their hands and toys become contaminated from lead in dust on the floor, windowsills and window wells and in bare soil. They put their hands and toys in their mouths and ingest tiny but dangerous amounts of lead. Some of that lead lodges in their brains and central nervous system disrupting normal neurological development and causing the IQ and attention span decrements describe above.
Once the lead has affected the brain and central nervous system, the damage is permanent and irreversible. Medical treatment can reduce the amount of lead in childrenís blood at high levels, but recent research has confirmed that this medical treatment does not reverse past brain damage. Therefore, the only moral and effective way to deal with childhood lead poisoning is to prevent children from being exposed to lead in the first place.
Lead Hazards in Housing
Most children with elevated blood lead levels are exposed to lead because they live in older, poorly maintained housing containing lead-based paint. Other children are exposed when their older homes are renovated or remodeled and the contractors fail to follow lead safe work practices to control, contain and clean up lead contaminated dust generated whenever lead-based painted surfaces are disturbed.
According to the recently completed HUD National Survey of Lead and Allergens in Housing, some 38 million homes in the United States have lead-based paint somewhere in the building. Over 25 million homes have significant lead-base paint hazards. Lead-based paint hazards include:
Housing in which all paint is intact is not hazardous. As long as the house is well maintained and as long as renovators and maintenance workers follow lead lead-safe work practices whenever they disturb lead-based paint, housing with intact paint will continue to be safe. EPA and HUD have developed lead safe work practices training and HUD is subsidizing provision of that training. This approach of educating property owners and contractors on how to avoid creating lead hazards should be strongly supported to prevent the further increase in the number of housing units with lead hazards.
The greatest risk of lead poisoning occurs in older housing units that contain lead hazards and that either will be or are currently occupied by low-income families with children under six. Almost 14 million housing units are occupied by low-income families. While only 1.6 million homes with lead-based paint hazards are presently occupied by low-income families with a child under six, most low-income families move frequently, particularly those living in rental housing units, that are most likely to be in poor condition due to lack of maintenance. So it is fair to estimate that the number of hazardous housing units in which low-income families with young children now live or are likely to live in the near future could well exceed 3 million.
Controlling Lead Hazards
In Title X of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992, the Congress established the framework for the nationís effort to end childhood lead poisoning. Title X recognized that lead-based paint hazards could be safely controlled by treatment strategies short of full removal, thereby reducing costs. Subsequent research shows that this position was correct. The Centerís evaluation of HUDís lead hazard control grant program shows that childrenís blood lead levels decline by 26% and dust lead levels decline by 66% in homes treated with modern methods.
Title X also shifted the emphasis from waiting until a child was found to have an elevated blood lead level before dealing with lead hazards to controlling lead hazards up front and preventing children from being lead poisoned in the first place. It directed HUD to require cost-effective lead hazard control treatments in federally owned and assisted housing. HUDís new lead regulation implements that statutory requirement. Cities, counties and states should carry out those requirements without further delay; and HUD should enforce them scrupulously. Title X also established the lead hazard control grant program to fund lead work in privately owned, low-income housing.
Since 1990, the number of housing units with lead-based paint hazards has been reduced and these reductions can be expected to continue. Some of this reduction results from market forces. Tens of thousands of the most contaminated housing are demolished every year. Some contaminated housing is remodeled in gentrifying neighborhoods. On the other hand, the percentage of housing units with deteriorated lead-based paint actually increased slightly, from 19% in 1990 to 22% in 1998, reflecting the continuing aging of housing and too commonly inadequate maintenance of housing occupied by low-income families.
As a direct result of Title X, as many as 1.4 million older, federally assisted housing units may be made lead safe through HUD funded rehabilitation over the next ten years if contractors follow lead safe work practices. City and state recipients of HUDís lead hazard control grants are controlling lead hazards in over seven thousand of the most at-risk housing units lead-safe every year. Many of those units were occupied by families with lead poisoned children. Many more units may be made lead-safe as a result of public education efforts as consumers come to demand lead-safety from painters and contractors.
Cost of Lead Hazard Control
The cost of lead hazard control treatments per housing unit treated under the HUD lead hazard control grant program varies depending on the size and condition of the unit, the type of unit and the hazard control strategy selected, ranging from $2,000 for housing units in sound condition and with moderate lead hazards to $10,000 or more for deteriorated housing with substantial hazards. In many cases, HUD grantees combine lead hazard control work with other rehabilitation activities. It is difficult to separate lead hazard control costs from rehabilitation costs, because the same activities, such as window replacement, serve both purposes. HUD estimates that the incremental costs for interim control lead hazard work average about $2,500 and $9,000 for abatement of hazards. From the property ownerís point of view, however, the costs are frequently $5,000 to $10,000.
As a practical matter, neither market forces nor federal programs are dealing with the most badly contaminated housing where children are most at risk of becoming poisoning. This housing is largely located in deteriorating inner city neighborhoods where little or no private funds are being invested. Controlling the lead-based hazards in those units is so expensive that recipients of HUD grants avoid them so that they can treat more housing units with their limited grants. Housing in this condition is being abandoned every year; and some properties are being demolished with HUD block grant funds. But too many of these high-risk housing continue to be rented to low-income families who have little or no choice. These are the housing units in which two or three or more children become lead poisoned over the years as a succession of families with young children move in and out.
Thus, while progress is being made, at the present rate it will take at least several generations to make all housing safe for the nationís children. The nation will miss the goal of a lead-safe America in 2010 by a wide margin. There are a number of steps that can be taken to accelerate meeting that national goal, including:
But as a practical matter, HUDís lead hazard control grant program is the only realistic source of financing at this time for controlling lead hazards in the older, low-rent, poorly maintained housing where children are most at risk. Private owners are unable or unwilling to make those housing units lead safe, because the costs of lead hazard control could never be recouped. In some cases it even exceeds the market value of the housing. Cities have other needs and priorities for HUDís community development block grant and HOME funds and may be reluctant to condemn units in the already dwindling stock of affordable housing for fear of increasing homelessness.
Childhood lead poisoning will end only when the nation changes its priorities and recognizes childhood lead poisoning as an epidemic that must be broadly addressed. For starters, Congress should sharply increase appropriations for lead hazard control now. At present, the only effective program that can address the core of the problem is HUDís lead hazard control grant program. The Center estimates that the annual appropriation for the program must be increased to $400 or $500 million if we are to prevent poisoning of generation after generation of young children who are likely to fail in school and lead unproductive lives.
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