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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Getting the Lead Out of Schools

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New Orleans       Increasingly, we are going to ask which school district is going to be the last one to stand up for its children and workers and test for lead.  There really is no rational reason in the face of the devastation that lead brings to children and others and the overwhelming evidence of its ubiquitously destructive impact in schools, and for that matter, other public buildings, for any steward of public trust and responsibility not to assure communities that they are protecting the safety of families and workers.

            After our success in Houston in winning testing for lead in all the districts’ water fountains and other water sources, and what seemed to be the quick agreement in New Orleans to move in the same direction, we have been heartened.  Attention is growing as well.  PBS is coming to New Orleans to film ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice and LSU Health Science Center’s testing program in both the schools and adjoining neighborhoods.  A lead education program that is embedded in the ACV housing education classes is also going to be filmed and featured.   Three New Orleans schools have already been tested for the impact of lead on both the soil and water sources.  The PBS angle focuses on the way in which science is being used as a tool for change in the communities, which seems spot on in this fight.

Local 100 United Labor Unions was somewhat surprised that Dallas continued to drag its heels in responding to us on this issue.  With fall and the return of classes, a meeting with a school board member and resumption of school board meetings as well as an emerging coalition of various groups united in their call for such testing, found a positive response finally.  Not only are they going to do the testing, but the Dallas Independent School District also finally agreed with our position to test retirees that had been exposed to lead and other chemicals in the warehouses.

            Dallas had little choice as well because they were beginning to seem a pariah in the metroplex.  Fort Worth had already not only agreed to test all of its water fountains, but having found evidence of lead already in several of them, has moved to replace them.  Arlington, half-way between Dallas and Fort Worth, has also announced a testing program as well.  Other school districts in the Houston area, including neighboring suburban districts of Alief and Cypress-Fairbanks are also moving forward on a testing plan now.   In Texas, districts are beginning to fall in line, but although Local 100’s representative in Arkansas reported some success in lining up allies among teacher groups to push for testing in Little Rock and Pulaski County, both districts are still lagging, even as so many of the trains have pulled out of the station on this issue.

            Other public buildings where we clean, as well as state and public facilities where our members work, are high on our list as well.  The simple rule of thumb should be that wherever there is a public water fountain, there needs to be a lead test. 

How hard is that to get done?

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