By: Karen MacPherson
Environmental and children’s groups are trying to persuade Congress to reject President Bush’s proposed 20 percent cut in a federal lead poisoning prevention program and actually boost funding instead, to $200 million from the current $174 million.
New children are identified as lead-poisoned every day, said Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes, even though the number of children suffering from lead poisoning has declined significantly in the past decade — from 3 million in 1990 to some 400,000 today — because lead has been eliminated from gasoline and from many household hazards.
Lead poisoning can lower IQ, damage hearing and lead to behavior problems, so the ripple effects are felt in many areas of a child’s life, especially in school. The rate of lead poisoning is particularly high among low-income, minority children, and children in urban areas.
“If funding for the program is cut, more children will be left behind due to the effects of lead poisoning, which diminishes the ability to think, concentrate and make progress in school,” said Emil Parker, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s health division.
At issue is funding for the federal Office of Health Homes and Lead Hazard Control, which is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year’s budget of $174 million provides grants to state and local governments for lead abatement efforts in low-income housing.
The program is the main national vehicle for eliminating lead paint hazards in private housing, the most common cause of childhood lead poisoning. An estimated 39 million U.S. homes contain lead paint, and it costs an average of $6,000 to either control or eliminate lead paint hazards in a home.
The department hopes to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2010. In its proposed 2005 budget, the administration called the Lead Hazard Control Program “the central element of the president’s effort to eradicate childhood lead-paint poisoning” but recommended slicing its budget to $139 million for next year.
Housing Department spokesman Brian Sullivan said HUD would be glad to accept more money. “When Congress gives us more money, we’re not going to turn it down,” he said. “We defer to the folks with the power of the purse.”
Bush also proposed decreasing funding for the Lead Risk Prevention Program located in the Environmental Protection Agency to $11 million from $15 million. Two other federal anti-lead programs — at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Environmental Health Services — would get modest increases under the Bush proposal.
Moira Singer, director of Lead Safe Pittsburgh, said federal funding is crucial. Last year, the city received a $2.16 million federal grant to address lead paint problems, she added.
The Pittsburgh area “has a huge risk” for lead poisoning, Singer said. Nearly 90 percent of the homes in Allegheny County were built before 1978, when the federal government prohibited lead in paint. And 64 percent were built before 1960, when most paint manufacturers began phasing out lead, which they had used to make colors brighter and the paint last longer.
“Unless something has been done, there is a high probability that there is lead-based paint in those homes,” she added. “It’s not just a low-income problem; it’s an old house problem.”
Lead paint on doors and windows is a particular problem, Singer said, because they move and the paint chips off. Even if doors and windows are painted over with lead-free paint, the paint underneath eventually can be brought to the surface as chips or dust to be ingested by children.
Screening children for lead poisoning is crucial to improve kids health and identify homes that need lead abatement, Parker said. But a recent report by the Environmental Working Group focused on Ohio found that only one in seven children ages one through five was screened for lead poisoning in 2002.
In recent years, cities and states have tried to boost funding for lead abatement programs by suing paint manufacturers, contending the companies knew lead was a health hazard long before they stopped adding it to paint. The governments claim they’ve been saddled with the resulting costs of lead abatement and health care.
These lawsuits have been generally unsuccessful, as have individual cases brought against manufacturers.
In July 2000, a Baltimore jury ruled against a man named Tyrone Parker, who sought up to $35 million from Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries and NL Industries. Parker contended the companies’ products had harmed him physically and mentally.
In a case brought against eight paint makers by the state of Rhode Island two years ago, the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous decision and the judge declared a mistrial. PPG was not involved in that lawsuit.
Whatever the outcome of such lawsuits, Singer said experts know how to eliminate childhood lead poisoning.
“We need three things,” she said: “Good medical care and screening for lead poisoning; good, enforceable laws that ensure property managers maintain their property without waiting for a child to get poisoned; and funding.”
“None of this is going to happen without funding,” she added.
Note: Tips for homeowners on preventing lead paint poisoning may be found at www.hud.gov/offices/lead/leadtips.cfm.