Making federally-assisted housing lead-safe for children

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Housing supported by the Federal Government should not be poisoning children.

That was the simple message Congress delivered to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992. Despite some real progress since then, recent cases of lead poisoning in federally-assisted housing in Chicago and Indiana suggest there is still much work to be done.

Thanks to a strong public push to highlight these failings, HUD recently proposed changes to its “Lead Safe Housing Rule.” At the heart of these changes is lowering the level of lead in children’s blood considered “elevated,” the trigger for local housing authorities to conduct detailed inspections of a child’s home for lead. HUD has continued to use a level of 20 µg/dL set in 1999, despite a consensus that lead is harmful to children at much lower levels. HUD is on track to finalize the rule in January 2017 after sending it to the Office of Management and Budget on November 21 for final reviewJan. 13, 2017 update: HUD issued a final rule that was similar to what was proposed.

EDF supports HUD’s proposal to tie its definition of “elevated blood lead level (BLL)” to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) reference level, currently 5 µg/dL. This will help ensure that children exposed to lead in federally-assisted housing will receive the services they need to avoid additional exposure.

However, once children are exposed to lead, the neuro-cognitive damage starts accruing and is generally believed to be irreversible. To protect children, we must prevent them from being exposed in the first place. As CDC’s own advisory committee noted in 2012, “Screening children for elevated BLLs and dealing with their housing only when their BLL is already elevated should no longer be acceptable practice.”

EDF joined dozens of other environmental, public health, and housing advocates in submitting  public comments that encouraged HUD to heed CDC’s advice and strengthen their rule to do more to prevent exposures in the first place. Suggestions offered to HUD to improve the rule included:

  • Eliminate visual-only checks for lead. HUD has said that the dust through which most children are exposed to lead, “…may be so fine that it cannot be seen by the naked eye.” And yet, the department continues to allow programs under its purview, such as Housing Choice Voucher, to use a “visual assessment” to screen for lead. To protect children, many comments noted that HUD should base the determination of safety on quantified measurements of lead dust present in homes.
  • Lower the lead threshold for “lead-based paint.” HUD continues to rely on a 1992 definition derived from the limits of portable testing technology available at the time. Relatively inexpensive devices can now quantify lead at much lower levels, and given the amount of lead dust created by disturbing even paint with lower levels of lead, it’s time for HUD to make an update.
  • Update the lead in dust standards. We have previously asserted that these standards are outdated. Earthjustice and its partners have thoroughly detailed that HUD should immediately apply lower standards for housing covered by its rules.
  • Identify and remove lead service lines that contaminate drinking water. The crises in Flint and other cities have demonstrated that lead exposure from drinking water cannot be ignored. Yet in the proposed rule’s preamble, HUD flatly declares lead in water to not be a “housing hazard,” therefore, beyond the department’s purview to address. We disagree. Lead in water is primarily the result of lead service lines connecting a home to the main. In most communities, the water utility maintains that the homeowner is responsible for the maintenance and replacement of these pipes, just like the lead-based paint on the wall.
  • Expand identification and remediation of lead to more categories of assistance. Currently, HUD requires different levels of testing and response depending on the type and amount of federal assistance. A broader range of programs should be covered and disparities addressed.
  • Better coordinate with EPA rules. Since EPA promulgated its Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule in 2008, local housing authorities have had to contend with meeting both HUD’s requirements and a similar, but not identical, set of standards from EPA. While there are good reasons to have both sets of rules, HUD should use this opportunity to build on EPA certification requirements and remove duplicative notifications.

EDF’s full comment, building on a collaboration with the Health Justice Project at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, highlights many of these topics and addresses additional areas.

We know that prevention works. A recent research article found that residents in federally-assisted housing that have benefited from HUD’s existing Lead-Safe Housing Rule have significantly lower blood lead levels than low-income residents in housing that did not receive federal assistance.

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