Mayor wants all landlords with pre-1978 housing to prove rentals are safe from lead

Mayor Jim Kenney, left, speaks as Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia Department of Public Health, listens during a news conference at the MSB in Philadelphia, PA on June 20, 2017. Mayor Kenney announced the final report and recommendations from the Philadelphia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Group.

Philadelphia landlords with rentals older than 1978 will have to prove these properties are safe from lead, if Mayor Kenney and other city officials get their way.

The current law, passed in 2012, requires landlords to certify their rentals as lead-safe only if they rent to families with children who are 6 and younger.

But landlords largely have ignored the law, and the city has failed to hold them to account, an Inquirer and Daily News investigation found last October as part of the “Toxic City” series.

Shortly thereafter, Kenney formed the Philadelphia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Group to find ways to reduce the numbers of children exposed to lead.

On Tuesday, Kenney and other city officials released the group’s report, which also recommended that the city financially help owners remove lead paint from their homes.

“I look forward to working with City Council to make these recommendations a reality,” he said.

Decades after the 1978 ban on lead-based paints, thousands of Philadelphia children year after year are newly poisoned by lead at rates far higher than those in the much-publicized health emergency in Flint, Mich., where drinking water was the culprit.

In 2015, nearly 2,700 children tested in Philadelphia had harmful levels of lead in their blood. But the city Department of Public Health only opened an investigation and inspected the homes for roughly 500 of those children, the sickest of the sick, the newspapers found.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says public health and pediatricians should intervene when children have a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter. The Health Department investigates only when a child hits a level of 10.

Last year, 341 children tested had a blood lead level above 10 — a new low, City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.

“We’ve made an awful lot of progress in lead over the years, but we still have far too many children who are being exposed to lead,” Farley said Tuesday. “This report represents a shift towards primary prevention, preventing kids from having exposure to lead in the first place, rather than just testing them and finding out later on.”

The city said it had struggled to enforce the current law because it was difficult to discern which rentals had young children. With an all-inclusive law, the city could deny a rental license to those landlords who don’t certify their rentals as lead-safe.

Other recommendations include exploring funding for landlords who want to remediate properties with lead paint but have financial hardship.

“Currently, Medicaid will reimburse physicians for doing tests for lead and reimburse certain activities to investigate where the sources of that lead are, but if the property needs to be remediated, Medicaid will not reimburse the cost of that,” Farley said.

The report also advocates for a statewide paint tax to support the cost of ridding homes or apartments of lead paint, which generally costs from $1,000 to $10,000.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, an advisory group member, said proposed changes will help prevent children from getting lead poisoning.

“Healthy children learn better,” she said. “And we don’t get a do-over.”

Even small amounts of lead can permanently lower a child’s IQ and cause behavioral problems, including increased aggression and hyperactivity. In adults, it can cause memory loss and depression, and harm the heart, kidneys, brains and reproductive functions.

In an installment of the “Toxic City” series published Sunday, reporters tested exposed soil in 114 locations in the Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmond neighborhoods, former home to 14 lead smelters. Nearly three out of four locations had hazardous levels of lead contamination.

A development boom is disturbing the soil, spewing lead dust across rowhouse steps, sidewalks, yards and playgrounds near construction sites, the investigation found.

Developers are not required to test soil for lead as a routine precaution before digging. Reporters found that the city did a poor job of enforcing dust control regulations at construction and demolition sites, potentially putting children at risk.

Farley said children who live near former smelters have lower rates of lead poisoning than children in poorer neighborhoods who live in old homes with deteriorating paint.

“If you look at a map of where the lead smelters were and you look at a map of where the lead-poisoning rates are — they are entirely different,” Farley said. “So we’re not saying that there couldn’t be exposure from outdoors, but it’s certainly not the primary exposure.”

Farley said dust caused by demolishing homes with lead paint is a concern. His agency is exploring ways to strengthen dust control regulations to protect the public. One idea is to require tightly woven mesh fencing surrounding demolition sites to contain dust.

Farley said that tearing down old homes will protect children down the road.

“Replacement of older houses, through demolition and construction, will actually reduce lead poisoning by removing the primary source of exposure for children — lead-based paint,” Farley said.

Parents concerned about dust from a demolition or construction site should call the city’s Air Management Service complaint line at 215-685-7580, he said.

Mayor Kenney (left) and Thomas Farley, Philadelphia health commissioner, announced recommendations from the Philadelphia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Group that would require all landlords to certify their properties are safe from lead. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)