|The neurotoxin lead is even more widespread in lead paint than in other sources, like drinking water. Above, lead paint on an old window frame. Photo: U.S. EPA. Click to enlarge.|
TipSheet: Don’t Overlook Lead Paint Toxicity Stories in Your Area
By Joseph A. Davis
Kids poisoned by lead in Flint drinking water was the big environmental justice story of 2015-2016. But if we really care about poor children, environmental journalists have to report on lead paint as well. The problem is even more widespread than lead in water.
The good news is that over the last 45 years lead poisoning in kids has decreased a lot. The bad news is that kids are still being poisoned. And the story is that it’s probably an overlooked issue right where you live.
The news hook is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is about to finalize its “Strategy to Reduce Lead Exposures and Disparities in U.S. Communities.” It has been proposed in draft form and gone through public comment.
The strategy envisions a “whole of EPA” approach to reduce lead poisoning and reduce the disparities in how it affects underserved communities. Over the last few decades, EPA has accumulated a range of legal authorities for addressing lead poisoning — not just from paint but from other sources (e.g., water and soil).
Spoiler alert: Many of the proposed solutions are difficult, politically hot and expensive.
Why it matters
Lead is a neurotoxin. When it gets in people’s blood it causes nerve damage. Children under the age of 5 or 6 are especially vulnerable, and high blood lead levels in young kids often cause permanent damage measurable as lower IQ.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “Exposure to lead can have a wide range of effects on a child's development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive, and irritable. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth, and hearing loss. At high levels, lead can cause permanent brain damage and even death.”
Children are more vulnerable for another reason: They like to play in the dirt and put things in their mouths. Some kids will eat paint chips from peeling walls, dust from old crumbling windows or even dirt from yards where lead dust has fallen.
Even though the sale of lead paint was made illegal in the United States after 1978, houses built before that year are likely to contain lead paint. Lead was used as a pigment in white paint but is found in other colors also. So it’s a bigger risk in old houses, schools and buildings that have not been well maintained.
Disadvantaged populations are likelier to attend
those crumbling schools and to live in that old
housing (or slumlords are less likely to maintain it).
This is where environmental justice comes in. Disadvantaged populations are likelier to attend those crumbling schools and to live in that old housing (or slumlords are less likely to maintain it).
Public health researchers and officials have been watching this for decades, and there are studies upon studies. The groups most commonly teased out in the data are Blacks and Latinos. Moreover, it has been well-documented for a long time that people in these groups are likelier to lack adequate health care or access to it. Poverty and location often amplify the problems.
As bad as lead poisoning is in disadvantaged children, the public health system has achieved great strides in recent decades in reducing it (see this dramatic chart). The government has helped a bit in public housing, although a big part of the progress came with the removal of lead from gasoline (read on for more about that topic).
The poisonous properties of lead have been known since the late 1800s. That did not keep it from being used in a wide range of commercial products.
One of the biggest was the addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline. For years the exhaust from leaded gas was common in the air and dirt deposits. For decades, a powerful lobby, the now-bankrupt Lead Industries Association, used its influence to protect lead from government regulation.
Ultimately, in 1971, Congress passed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, followed by the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976. But it was not until 1978 that the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued the first rule banning lead paint.
Congress has passed numerous other laws aimed
at lead paint, with the locus of government action
shifting to the EPA. In the end, however, much of
the responsibility has been left up to the states.
Since then, Congress has passed numerous other laws aimed at lead paint, with the locus of government action shifting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the end, however, much of the responsibility has been left up to the states.
The problem, in a nutshell, was and is the vast stock of old housing and other buildings containing lead paint. And worse: Trying to remove lead paint can mobilize lead dust, while encapsulating it in a thick coat of new paint can immobilize it. Pro tip for your audience: Do not try sanding your lead paint.
The fabric of state/federal laws and regulations has produced two major strategies for dealing with lead paint. First: Renters and buyers have a right to know if a building has lead paint that can pose a risk. Second: The contractors who paint houses or tear them up should be legally required to do it in a lead-safe way.
- Talk to your state or county health department and ask how much childhood lead poisoning is found in your area. What programs do they have to address it?
- Talk to realtors and find out what state and local laws apply to lead paint disclosure in your area. Are they followed and enforced?
- Find some certified lead inspection and abatement contractors in your area. It’s often states who certify them. Ask them about their business. Ask them if uncertified contractors are pirating it.
- Talk to local pediatricians or pediatricians in hospitals that treat indigent patients. Ask what they are finding. Ask what problems they have treating lead poisoning.
- Check in with your local school system and find out what shape their buildings are in. Ask what actions they are taking to assess and abate lead.
- Go to the hardware store and get some do-it-yourself lead test kits (see if your newsroom will expense them). You might grab a sample when you visit that school or housing complex. But check any positive findings with a certified lab.
- Ask local housing agencies whether any of the recent big infrastructure and COVID-19 bills are supplying any money for lead abatement.
- Browse the comments on EPA’s upcoming lead strategy. Contact any of the commenters who might have an angle relevant to your area or your story.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The EPA has a vast array of regs and programs about lead. Ordinary people can call their lead hotline. Also, the public docket for the EPA draft lead strategy is your gateway to the world of lead policy and politics. Drill down, read the docs, browse the comments.
- Centers for Disease Control: CDC has a large Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. See also CDC’s blood lead surveillance data.
- State and local public health agencies: Locate them with this directory.
[Editor’s Note: SEJournal has published numerous stories in recent years about the lead poisoning problem, including a TipSheet on the health risks of lead paint and an Inside Story Q&A with an award-winning team reporting on lead paint in Philadelphia’s schools. Also see TipSheets on lead pipes and the challenge of tracing lead lines, along with this Backgrounder on the widespread problem of lead in the water supply and a feature with takeaways from a nationwide investigative report. On the Flint crisis, SEJournal also offered an analysis on its lessons, and interviewed the physician instrumental in exposing the crisis, as well as reviewed her book, along with an earlier volume on the “Lead Wars.” For recent headlines, search EJToday for lead paint, and on lead in water and lead pipes.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 15. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.