Lawmakers demand action on Philly's lead-paint scourge

"This is an issue in which we all have to work together to come up with real solutions," State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Monday of lead paint in Philadelphia homes.

When State Rep. Donna Bullock stood among a dozen state and local lawmakers calling for an end to the city's childhood lead poisoning crisis Monday, her cry for help was also a personal one.

Four years ago, when her son was 2, her pediatrician told her the boy had high levels of lead in his blood.

"I was scared," she said. "I didn't know if he'd struggle in school or have other problems."

He had often played at his grandmother's house in Strawberry Mansion, where 21 percent of children tested had lead poisoning, the highest of any area in the city.

He used the windowsill as a ledge where he would paint and color, Bullock (D., Phila.) said Monday. "That's where he likely got it."

Bullock and her colleagues argued Monday that more money and staff were necessary to combat the scourge of lead paint in old houses in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the state.

State Sens. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) and Art Haywood (D., Montgomery) organized the news conference at City Hall.

Several Philadelphia City Council members and community activists said the city must enforce existing laws to crack down on landlords who rent out properties with unsafe levels of lead and make tenants' children sick.

The demand by officials came in response to "Toxic City," an ongoing series in the Inquirer and Daily News and on Philly.com showing that Philadelphia children are newly poisoned by lead at a far higher rate than those in Flint, Mich., whose water system problems drew attention this year.

Last year, nearly 2,700 children tested in Philadelphia had blood lead levels of at least 5 micrograms per deciliter - the level the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has used since 2012 for public health officials to intervene.

But the city's Department of Public Health checked on the houses of only about 500 children, those with lead poisoning at a level of 10 micrograms and above.

Earlier this year, health workers began going door to door in Kensington to educate residents about lead hazards. Workers also recently visited homes of 46 children with lead levels of 5 to 9.9 to talk to parents about how their kids were doing.

Bullock said her son, who had a lead level of 5, was kept away from the windowsill until it was repaired. "I'm happy to say he's doing well, but I'm one of the fortunate ones," she said in an interview.

Other families are trapped, she said. "They don't have the money to go anywhere else. They don't have the resources to say to the landlord, 'Fix this or I'm leaving.' "

Medical experts say that no level of lead is safe for infants and children, and that lead poisoning can cause irreversible damage, including a lower IQ and lifelong learning and behavioral problems.

City health officials said their efforts to protect children from lead paint have been hampered over the last three years by losing $3 million in federal funding out of a $9 million program, leading to cuts of 40 of 65 positions in the Lead and Healthy Homes program.

Philadelphia created the nation's first Lead Court in 2002 to enforce laws requiring landlords and homeowners to rid their properties of lead perils. The city, however, brings only the most serious cases into Lead Court - 121 last year.

In 2012, the city enacted a law regulating homes built before 1978, the year of the federal ban on lead paint. Landlords renting to families with children age 6 and under must have their properties certified as lead-safe and provide proof to their tenants and to the Department of Public Health.

But landlords largely ignore the law and city health officials don't know of any fines collected.

"We have to make sure that these laws are enforced, and that requires resources and it requires will," said Phil Lord, executive director of the Tenant Union Representative Network.

The Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church said he wants the same enthusiasm for protecting children that he sees from parking enforcement workers.

"We put a premium on ticketing cars in Philadelphia," he said. "If you don't pay, we put a boot on it and we take it. You want your car, you pay. If we can do that with automobiles, certainly we can do that with our children, our future."

Hughes called for a joint city, state, and federal task force "to come up with real solutions."

George Gould, a lawyer for Community Legal Services, has battled lead paint contamination since the 1970s.

"We can have all the laws on the books but unless there are resources to hire inspectors to do the work that needs to be done, it doesn't get done," he said.

Avril Absolum, whose 9-year-old son, Jalen, was poisoned by lead in a rental home at age 2, said Monday she was "overcome with emotion" after hearing that lawmakers were moved to act from reading her story and those of other families in the Inquirer and Daily News report.

"I'm pleading with the lawmakers to do something, do anything," she said.

As a toddler, her son had a blood lead level of 29 after he chewed on windowsills covered in lead paint. She said he did not really talk until age 5, and struggles to read and write.

"Lead poisoning is a killer of hope, a killer of dreams," she said.


Contact Barbara Laker at 215-854-5933, @barbaralaker or lakerb@phillynews.com