The uphill climb to resolving Pennsylvania's lead paint crisis

Employees from Environmental Health Control remove lead paint. Image provided

Employees from Environmental Health Control remove lead paint. Image provided

Jenni Drozdek thought she’d taken every precaution to keep her daughter, Mina, from becoming one of the approximately 13,000 Pennsylvania children diagnosed with lead poisoning.

The family’s 19th-century row house in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood was newly renovated, with no chipping paint or deteriorating windows. The tap water tested safe. It was only when 1-year-old Mina’s blood test revealed significantly elevated lead levels that the Drozdeks learned they had been tracking toxic residue from the soil in their post-industrial neighborhood into their home. Mina had been crawling on floors laced with lead.

“I was horrified,” said Drozdek, who works in education for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She’d considered herself informed, having signed leases with lead hazard disclosures in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – disclosures that together with weak, poorly enforced laws and inadequate funding for lead remediation have done little to ameliorate a persistently toxic environment in the state’s aging homes, schools, playgrounds and parks.

That environment is the devastating legacy of lead paint, which the federal government banned in 1978 for indoor use after research overwhelmingly revealed the heavy metal to be a potent neurotoxin. But lead lingers in virtually every structure built before that year, including 70 percent of Pennsylvania homes – a number that rises to 95 percent in Philadelphia. In use since Colonial times to improve paint’s durability and texture, lead is still widely found in exterior paint on outdoor structures like bridges.

After the Flint, Michigan, water crisis propelled lead into the headlines in 2015, the issue has been getting renewed attention across the Keystone State, where local lead poisoning rates – caused primarily by deteriorating paint in old homes – routinely dwarf the Michigan numbers. Reuters recently reported that 5 percent of Flint children tested positive for elevated lead levels, compared to 36 percent of those tested in Warren, Pennsylvania. Flint reminded people that lead, when ingested or inhaled by small children, can permanently lower IQ and cause lifelong developmental and behavioral problems.

According to the National Center for Healthy Housing, every dollar invested in lead hazard control results in societal savings of as much as $221. “People are starting to look at the other long-term impacts,” said state Rep. Donna Bullock, a Philadelphia Democrat whose own young son was diagnosed with lead poisoning a few years ago. Bullock pointed out that lead-poisoned youngsters are far more likely to require costly special education, drop out of school and land in trouble with the law, imposing enormous social costs. “It’s all collateral damage,” Bullock said.

The stakes are clear. While the numbers have been declining, one of every 10 children tested statewide has a blood lead level of more than five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood – the threshold for intervention set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cautions that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. In Lehigh and Warren counties, more than one in five children tested has elevated blood lead levels, contradicting the perception that lead poisoning is an urban scourge.

And nobody really knows how widespread the problem is, given that only about a quarter of Pennsylvania children even undergo lead testing.

“I will say that there is a lot of bipartisan agreement that this is a very, very severe issue,” said state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, an Allentown Democrat who, along with Rep. Angel Cruz of Philadelphia, has championed a series of recent proposals that call for universal childhood lead testing, more testing for lead in water, and mandatory testing and disclosure of lead hazards in rental apartments.

But when asked about the feasibility of solving the problem, Schlossberg was candid. “Feasibility requires investment, and investment requires money, and it also requires political will,” he said. “And I don’t know if enough of these things exist.”

While a defeatist perspective has bred complacency over the decades, the examples of other municipalities make it clear that Pennsylvania’s shocking figures are hardly inevitable. New York City, which also has an older housing stock and a high percentage of poor residents, successfully tackled its lead problem through stricter regulations and greater investment in remediation and enforcement. Last year, The New York Times reported that New York City’s lead poisoning rate is just 2 percent.

But in Pennsylvania, “the can’s been kicked down the road for decades with this issue,” said Eric Walsh, a spokesman for Environmental Hazards Control, a certified lead abatement specialist in Lancaster, where the juvenile lead poisoning rate is twice that of Flint. In December, the Lancaster City Council passed a resolution calling on the state to adopt the CDC’s lower lead poisoning threshold, implement a comprehensive testing protocol and – most urgently – enact legislation requiring that all rental housing be certified safe from lead.

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown

“Lead poisoning is not a partisan political issue,” said Philadelphia City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who spearheaded the city’s 2012 law mandating lead disclosure, testing and remediation for dwellings rented to families with children. “It is a public health issue that causes permanent and severe damage to all those affected, in particular our city’s children,” she said.

In November, alongside council proposals to tighten school water safety standards and expand the Lead Paint Disclosure and Certification Law to include water lines, Reynolds Brown introduced a bill that would require Philadelphia child care centers to certify that they are safe from lead before receiving a license to operate. It is the kind of simple, effective measure that, were it applied to rental apartments, could virtually eliminate the state’s lead poisoning epidemic, as Lancaster County officials proposed.

But while testing is cheap, lead remediation is expensive – about $4,000 to $8,000 for a typical dwelling – and cost has been a significant deterrent in cash-strapped Pennsylvania. Even where laws are in place to ensure safe conditions for tenants, cost is again the obstacle, as cities like Philadelphia lack the funds to enforce compliance on landlords that routinely shirk their obligations.

For example, a child’s blood lead level has to reach 10 micrograms per deciliter – twice the CDC threshold – before the Philadelphia Department of Health intervenes to pressure landlords to remediate the lead, a process itself that is fraught with dangerous delays. The scope of the problem reflects the deficits of the city’s 2012 lead law, acknowledged Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.

“We know for a fact that only a small number of landlords are complying,” said Guss, referring to the requirement to certify units with young tenants as safe from lead. Nobody holds landlords accountable when they lie about whether children live there or whether the unit has been tested, and more than one anonymous landlord told a reporter that it’s common to discourage tenants with young children from renting. The Homeowners Association of Philadelphia declined requests for comment.

Such stories are common enough that Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney recently announced the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Plan, which aims to plug yawning holes in the existing regulations. Jeff Moran, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the city plans a campaign to promote lead awareness, as well as a crackdown on landlords who flout the law. The city also hopes to develop technology allowing the city’s health department to share data with the city’s licensing agency. Someday, rental licenses could be contingent on lead law compliance.

Yet again, funding remains the wild card. A day after Moran said money for the initiative was “under discussion currently as part of the budget process,” state Sen. Vincent Hughes announced a $35,000 grant to train certified lead inspectors and another $90,000 for lead remediation – a promising start, but a fraction of the investment required to achieve the city’s goals.

“The only real solution to this problem is the systematic renovation of homes where people live,” said Dr. Marilyn Howarth, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology. “And for that to happen, more money has to come in.”

Howarth pointed out that while children are more commonly affected, lead poisoning can have serious consequences for adults. Lead exposure has been blamed as a probable contributor to neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“Pennsylvania has the highest rate of lead-poisoned workers in the country,” said Howarth, who has treated miners and construction workers with severe anemia, kidney disease and other symptoms of lead poisoning. Some of it may be attributable to the manufacturing jobs common in Pennsylvania, but Howarth cites lax enforcement of workplace safety laws as well.

Experts also agree that water lines contaminated with lead may be more of a factor than people realize, given Pennsylvania’s complex patchwork of water utilities and pipes of varying age and provenance. As scrutiny increases, there may be more announcements like the one from the York Water Company earlier this month: The utility said it will replace all its water lines after finding that six out of 50 buildings it tested exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for lead in water.

The announcement was one more reminder that while lower-income families are disproportionately affected, the metal itself does not discriminate. In addition to poor children poisoned by crumbling doorframes, Howarth has treated affluent families poisoned by renovation dust, or by the lawns near remodeled houses where scraped-off lead paint has settled into the soil. As gentrification revives neighborhoods from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, playgrounds are built where factories once disgorged their toxic materials.

“They call it the Rust Belt for a reason,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, who for years watched funding for lead abatement decline alongside the local manufacturing economy. This year, the department won a $3.4 million lead grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – part of a fluctuating, unpredictable pool of money for lead initiatives across Pennsylvania. “The fact that the Flint situation happened has dramatically increased awareness,” Hacker said. “A lot of people living in these communities want change to happen.”

But the unreliability of funding means even promising initiatives wither before they have a chance to bear fruit. Colleen McCauley, a veteran lead safety advocate, pointed to a CDC-sponsored state program called Lead Safe Babies that coordinated remediation for the lead-impacted homes of pregnant women and newborns. Statistics show it was highly effective in reducing lead poisoning, but the program was cancelled when funding disappeared.

“What’s particularly challenging is, we’re still talking about a problem that has existed for a long time, and it’s ubiquitous,” said McCauley, the health policy director at Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia.

Like many others, she sees a pattern of neglect for an issue often dismissed as an urban problem. “It does disproportionately affect people who have smaller incomes and people of color, in the Southeast in particular, and it is more challenging to have folks pay attention,” McCauley said.

For Philadelphia, that challenge may be even greater if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, a process which began in Congress earlier this month. Philadelphia is one of five U.S. cities receiving lead hazard funding from the CDC under a little-known provision of the ACA called the Prevention and Public Health Fund; James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said the CDC has provided $292,000 annually since 2014 for lead poisoning prevention, a three-year grant whose renewal is imperiled by the possible repeal.

An EHC lead-remediation effort on a home's exterior requires containment of any lead particles. Photo provided

If funding were to return in earnest, McCauley has some ideas to borrow from other municipalities. Rochester, New York, requires rental properties to be inspected for lead at designated intervals, and the city monitors inspection companies as a check against corruption. In Rhode Island, Medicaid pays to remediate lead in the homes of affected children. New Jersey, which has a similarly old housing stock but a far lower lead poisoning rate than Pennsylvania, pays for a state remediation fund with a tax on paint, awarding lead abatement grants to lower-income families.

But Pennsylvania relies heavily on the CDC and HUD, which have sharply decreased lead funding over the past decade. HUD recently awarded $2.9 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Health to combat lead paint, which health department spokesman Michael Gerber said will be used to assess and remediate lead in 186 homes around the state. HUD also awarded $1.4 million to Allentown and $1.2 million to the Lancaster for their own lead initiatives.

Those numbers may sound big, but they barely scratch the surface of what is ultimately required to make Pennsylvania safe again. And for now, there are few resources to help low-income renters.

“It’s in almost all of our homes, and you can’t just pick up and move your family,” said Bullock. “It is present in every community. The same historic architecture that we love is also a hidden danger to our families.”

For Bullock, it was hidden in plain sight: her own mother’s house, where her 3-year-old son spent many afternoons drawing on the lead-dusted windowsill. “You say, as a parent, ‘Have I failed them? Are they going to reach their fullest potential?’” recalled Bullock, whose son is now 6.

When she ran for state office last year, Bullock was determined to be part of the solution. Together with her state House colleagues, she is working on legislation that would fine derelict landlords to create a remediation fund.

“At the end of the day, it’s about finding the dollars and the resources to remediate or rebuild our cities,” Bullock said. “Until we figure out how to deal with old housing on a grand scale around the commonwealth, we’ll have this issue.”