Nan Feyler is chief of staff for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
By Nan Feyler
Lead poisoning of children continues to be a serious health problem – and one that science has linked to lower and lower levels of exposure even as government has opted for greater and greater cuts in prevention programs.
Each year, thousands of children in the Philadelphia region alone are poisoned, most often from deteriorated paint and dust in older homes where lead paint remains under layers of newer lead-free paint. Chipping and peeling paint due to age, overdue or poor maintenance, unsafe remediation or wear and tear on well-used areas like doors and windows can create poisonous lead dust that, while often invisible, accumulates on surfaces throughout the house, putting young children and babies at risk.
Philadelphia’s new Lead Paint Disclosure and Certification Law, which went into effect on Dec. 21, is intended to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in children who live in older rental properties in the city. Section PM-305 of the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code already requires landlords to correct any peeling paint, cracked or loose plaster, decayed wood, and other defective surface conditions in a rental unit. Yet each year hundreds of children in Philadelphia are poisoned from exposure to lead paint and lead dust in the homes that their families rent.
In an effort to prevent any more young children from moving into a rental unit where they are exposed to lead, Philadelphia’s new law – championed by Philadelphia Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown and supported by the city Department of Public Health, for which I testified during a hearing on the bill – requires landlords to go a step further and provide written certification that a property is “lead free” or “lead safe” before renting to a new tenant with children 6 years or younger in buildings built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. A lead safe certificate, which is valid for two years, indicates that the property has passed a visual clearance and dust wipe lead test conducted by a trained professional. A lead free certificate indicates that all lead paint has been permanently removed from the property and is valid indefinitely. Landlords must also provide tenants with a flyer about the danger of lead poisoning and the importance of notifying their landlord of any chipping or peeling paint, which the landlord must repair promptly. The only new expense to a landlord is the cost of hiring a dust wipe sampling technician every two years to inspect, analyze, and issue a report on the property. Depending on the size of the unit, this should total $250 to $350, including the cost of the laboratory analysis..
The harm of lead exposure in young children has been well-documented. Although it may not be noticeable for some time, lead can impact almost every part of the body, especially the brain. Lead poisoning has been associated with lowered IQ, learning disabilities, speech and language problems, difficulties with academic performance, anemia and hearing loss. The adverse effects of early childhood exposure on neurodevelopment can persist into the second decade of life. “Lead damage is permanent and irreversible,” Robert W. Block, past president of the American Association of Pediatrics, noted in a statement supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s adoption several months ago of a lower minimum blood-lead level to identify children at risk. “Children with elevated lead levels are more likely to have behavior problems, attention deficit and reading disabilities, and fail to graduate from high school, in addition to experiencing a host of other impairments to their developing cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems.”
Scientists now know there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, with new findings indicating even low blood lead levels causing cognitive harm and affecting the cardiovascular, immunological and endocrine systems. At the newer level recently adopted by the CDC – 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, down from 10 – roughly 13,000 more Pennsylvania children, an increase of 400 percent, would have been considered lead-poisoned in 2011, according to statistics for counties and selected cities compiled for the state Department of Health’s Childhood Lead Surveillance Program’s annual report. That’s a total of 4,900 children in Philadelphia, 85 in Bucks County, 188 in Chester County, 580 in Delaware County, and 466 in Montgomery County.
At the same time, Congress has cut more than 90 percent of funding for the CDC’s Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program,and the state health department has recently moved away from funding lead screening and prevention in high risk areas.
Household paint is not the only risk for lead poisoning. Poisonous lead levels have been found in soil, water that flows through old lead pipes or faucets, food stored in bowls glazed or painted with lead, older and some imported toys, imported candy, and some traditional folk medicines, all of which should be avoided. But the most common cause by far is deteriorating lead paint in older homes. Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation for having the most housing units built before 1978, including more than 90 percent of Philadelphia’s housing stock.
While the new city ordinance is aimed at landlords, they are not the only ones who must act to prevent lead exposure. All homeowners of older property where children live or spend time should take steps to reduce lead dust exposure, and all parents and caregivers should make sure every child is screened for lead poisoning at age 1 and 2. The harms associated with lead poisoning are significant, the estimated social and economic costs exorbitant and the benefit of preventing a lead poisoned children immeasurable.
Here is information about the new city Lead Certification and Disclosure law, guidelines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency about how to protect our family from lead in your home, and more tips from the CDC on preventing children from being poisoned by lead.
Read more about The Public's Health.