Has Maryland Gone from Bad to Best in Lead Poisoning Prevention?

New Orleans      Almost everyone knows the terribly destructive impact even the least exposure to lead can have in destroying the future of children, yet we still regularly hear about such tragedies even after all of these decades of recognized danger.  In recent years, Local 100 United Labor Union members who were workers at the Houston Independent School District and Dallas Independent School district joined with parents and others to win testing and replacement of water foundations.  Joining with our partners in New Orleans, we are also seeing progress.

All of this seems to pale in light of the developments that have been made in Maryland where state laws and local enforcement combined with aggressive and effective community partners, like the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative directed by Ruth Ann Norton, have totally flipped the script on lead dangers in their communities.  Short years ago, Elijah Cummings, the Congressman from Baltimore was raising this issue in committee hearings and upbraiding companies and federal agencies that had allowed tenants to find their children poisoned.  Now in Maryland, according to the Childhood Lead Registry, in the state that is funded by the federal Center for Disease Control there has been a 98% decline in childhood lead poisoning.  State records indicate that hundreds of thousands of housing units in the Maryland have now been made lead free or lead safe.

This is all very good news and should be a model for states and communities around the country.  How they did this is no secret.  The state passed a series of laws establishing strict standards and a lead rental registry.  In addition to the Maryland Lead Risk Reduction in Housing Act (for pre-1978 rental units), there are additional piece of legislation that have been enacted that involve universal screening, education programs, worker training, and additional services and support for homeowner-occupied properties and, importantly, childcare facilities.  Prior to clearing properties for rental by families, there is now a required inspection for lead, directed clean-up if found, and clearance before the unit can be occupied.  The Maryland Department of the Environment in cooperation with Housing and Health produces an annual report that documents all of this work.  Maryland has also used CHIP administrative funds available federally to set up a lead hazard control fund which provides the grease to finally make these wheels roll.

Certainly, there’s still work to be done in Maryland, just as there is in states throughout the country, but examining the work done by Maryland and its partners in the community, this seems like a model that could be replicated everywhere.  The same federal funding sources to trigger such programs are available everywhere and resources like CHIP are in place in every state already.  The key is finally ignoring the whining of landlords, developers, and politically powerful real estate interests, then doing the inspections and forcing a fix.

There’s obviously a way, the question is whether there is a will to finally eradicate lead poisoning.

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Court Victory on Lead Standards Over Shocking Delays

Gulfport   Here’s a legal victory worth celebrating, I guess. The Appeals Court in San Francisco on 2-1 vote rejected the EPA’s efforts to seek yet another delay and ordered them to produce new lead safety standards on dust and soil contamination essentially in 90 days. The agency had proposed yet another six year delay for yet more studies, and the court put its foot down. Let no good deed go unpunished though, the EPA is reviewing whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court rather than complying.

Any celebration is marred by the total disbelief that the EPA has been dragging its feet for 17 years since the last regulations despite the unanimous consensus over the harm that lead does to brains, all brains, but especially children’s. The main driver of the appeal was the environmental legal shop, Earthjustice, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. We were following this issue closely because ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, based in Louisiana was one of the named plaintiffs in the litigation. ACV, as its known, has been waging an anti-lead campaign for more than a decade, so it was good to see them be able to take a victory lap, even if the final outcome of the litigation is still uncertain.

Make no mistake, it is just crazy that we are even talking about lead standards in the thick of the 21st century. Don’t put this on your list of Trump administration regulatory slogs and rollbacks either. As the Times reported: “The E.P.A., then under Mr. Obama, acknowledged the need for stricter rules in 2011 and agreed to take action, but never did so and set no timelines for developing a new rule.” Unbelievable, right? But, maybe not. This is a scourge of lower-income neighborhoods causing huge problems in older Northeastern states and cities and nationally, so as usual you had to really want to listen to hear their voices.

Part of the problem is inattention to detail. The consensus on the danger of lead, even small amounts, is high, but the indifference is palpable. As Local 100 United Labor Unions has found in our campaigns to get lead out of school districts in Texas, the Center for Disease Control has a lower standard for lead than the EPA has, and now there are cities and school districts that have gone even lower than both, since the medical and scientific estimate of damage is based on infinitesimal amounts.

The consensus may be masking the urgency of the problem and its tragic impact. The Times, providing context for the extent of the threat, reported that:

A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2016 found that — despite decades of work to reduce lead in paint, dust and water — about 3 percent of children around the country exhibit high levels of the metal in their blood.

3% seems horrid, but colleagues at ACV point out that that figure is based on 3% of children tested, and testing has been extremely lax. Furthermore, they stress that the tests only take a picture of a point in time in the month when the test was given. Due to environmental and other factors attributing to dust and soil conditions, the real dangers might be masked more significantly depending on the season and timing of the test.

Meanwhile we read that New York City public housing authorities fabricated reports on removing lead in housing projects there. Congressional action was needed to protect families from rent-to-own companies in some cities where inadequate prevention and inspections were done. And, we’re only talking about rules for soil and dust, and the headlines around water system contamination indicate that that’s only part of this expanding environmental disaster.

We can count coup in one small battle, but the war rages on and calls for action on every front.

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