Lead Paint Lingers as Environmental Health Threat

March 28, 2018
In June 2016, then Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro toured homes that are being rehabbed due to lead-based paints. Photo: HUD

TipSheet: Lead Paint Lingers as Environmental Health Threat

Well after the United States erupted in a political uproar a few years ago over children being poisoned by lead in drinking water in Flint, Mich., it was noted — with much less consternation — that children in thousands of communities across the nation had blood lead levels as high or even higher.

In most of those cases, though, the culprit was not lead in water but lead in paint.

That’s not a new story, but it continues to be news. Lead paint is an environmental story that will not go away, and one that is probably important to your community …  and often overlooked.

Lead has been used in paint for hundreds of years. Lead compounds are used for red, yellow and white pigments, and provide other desired qualities. Lead is common in older housing and buildings in the United States. Paint from structures built before 1940 is quite likely to contain lead.

But the toxicity of lead was beginning to be understood as early as the 1880s. The toxicity of lead in certain forms is well established. It attacks the brain, nervous system, liver, kidneys and bones. It accumulates in the body.

In the United States, lead was banned in paint in 1977 — not by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (which is why structures built after 1978 are unlikely to contain much lead).

The lead industry resisted these efforts every step of the way, although lead was already being phased out in paint well before 1977. But more regulation has followed. The EPA in 2008 set rules for requiring home improvement contractors disturbing lead paint to be certified — and to use practices that minimize lead contamination.

Children in millions of households exposed to high levels of lead

Children are especially vulnerable, and it can permanently damage their nervous systems, lower their IQs, and cause learning and behavior problems that can last a lifetime.

The problem is that toddlers at a certain age put a lot of things in their mouths, including chips of deteriorating lead paint. They may also play in dirt contaminated by lead paint dust. Many pediatricians routinely screen kids for lead, but there is no blood lead level that is considered “safe.”


There are at least four million households

in the United States with children in them

who are being exposed to high levels of lead.


With a large stock of U.S. housing built before 1978, or even before 1940, the older the paint, the more likely it is to be chipping, flaking and crumbling, and some of this gets into soil that kids play in.

The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, estimate that there are at least four million households in the United States with children in them who are being exposed to high levels of lead.

The problem is huge — and that is a big part of the challenge. There is some government help and funding for fixing up buildings with lead hazards, but not nearly enough. The result is that much of the burden falls on homeowners, landlords, building contractors and painters.

Historically, EPA has had some grant money for lead paint issues, but it has tended to go to things like outreach and education to make people more aware of the problems. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has made some grants, typically for demonstration programs. The CDC has also made some grants for lead poisoning prevention.

Future of enforcement, funding unclear

There is some EPA enforcement of lead paint rules by EPA — even under the Trump administration. (Check the case lists at those links for cases in your community.) But even under previous presidents, most enforcement cases ended in settlements.

It remains to be seen whether action on lead-paint issues by the Trump-Pruitt EPA will be as strong as it was under Obama. (That may be a low bar. Environmental and public health groups sued the Obama EPA for foot-dragging on lead dust standards.)

Meanwhile, Trump’s budget for EPA has proposed eliminating some programs aimed at reducing harm from lead paint.

In practice, most enforcement (or non-enforcement) of lead-paint rules falls to state, county, city and other local governments. If you want to cover this, talk to your local housing or public health agency.

And another key enforcer — in practice — are personal injury lawyers. In recent years, taking a page from the tobacco-settlement playbook, they based lead-paint suits on public nuisance law rather than product liability law. And they have succeeded, using class-action techniques to get settlements that yield significant cash to help lead-poisoned families.

Look for lead-paint lawsuits in your area. Google searches can help you find them, but you might also try your state’s attorney general’s office.

Remember that not all childhood or adult lead poisoning is related to lead paint. Until 1996, when EPA finished banning lead in gasoline, this was a major source of toxicity. Soil around smelters is often contaminated with lead. Other exposures result from various consumer products and occupational activities.

Obviously, lead paint is a major environmental justice story. Low-income and ethnic minority people are more likely to live in dilapidated housing and contaminated industrial areas. Poor kids need testing more, but may be less likely to get it. [Editor’s Note: See our Issue Backgrounder on drinking water and environmental justice.]

One place to check for expertise is the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (formerly known as the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning). For the industry viewpoint, go to the International Lead Association. For decades, the Lead Industries Association lobbied and advocated for the industry on lead-paint issues, but in recent years they seem to have disappeared without much of a trace.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 13. 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.

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