EDF Health

Some good news in Washington, but much more work to do on lead

Jack Pratt is Chemicals Campaign Director

You may have missed it, but early Saturday morning there was some good news in Washington. After a long delay, Congress finally passed funding to help address the public health disaster in Flint, Michigan. This is good news, but much work remains to be done, in Flint and around the country.

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A Different Vote–One That Could Have an Impact on Lead Exposure

There’s a vote coming this month you should know about and it doesn’t involve Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. This month, the International Code Council (ICC) will consider a simple proposal to reduce lead exposures. This admittedly less monumental vote could nonetheless have a significant impact on public health and deserves our attention.

The proposal before the ICC would change the model building and residential codes to require that contractors present proof of lead-safe certification when they apply to do work on pre-1978 homes. Lead paint was banned in 1978, meaning homes built before that time are significantly more likely to contain lead paint. The certification itself is nothing new, it is already required at a federal level. Yet, most localities do not require any proof of certification when issuing permits to renovate these homes.  Update: ICC’s code officials rejected the proposal. As of Jan. 11, 2017, vote tally is not yet available.

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People deserve to know if lead pipes and paint are present where they live and work

Tom Neltner, J.D.is the Chemicals Policy Director

We live in an increasingly transparent world. When it comes to the real estate market, companies are mining local government databases to let us know the size of a home, how much it’s worth, and even when the roof was last replaced.

Yet, you can’t find out if the house you might buy could poison your children with toxic lead. Federal law only requires that the seller or landlord reveal the presence of lead paint when you sign a contract to buy or rent a home.

We think that has to change.

People should be able to readily know if lead is present in the paint and water pipes where they live and work when they begin making important decisions, not when they are finalizing the deal. When shopping for a place to live, the best time to learn if there is lead at a property is when it is listed for sale or rent. Some opponents claim that revealing this information invades the resident’s privacy, but the presence of lead is not about anyone’s behavior. Rather, it’s a fact about the house, a legacy of the construction of the building. It is no different from the type of furnace or number of bedrooms.

There are signs of progress. In Washington, DC, the water utility has launched an online map that reveals information that can help improve transparency on lead pipes. Anyone can check online and see what’s known (and not known) about the presence of lead service lines that connect the drinking water main under the street to their home or business.

It’s a model other communities should follow. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made this type of transparency a priority for states and utilities. And the private sector needs to play a role, too — real estate innovators like Zillow and Redfin, who have transformed how we find homes, should include this information in their online listings.

It’s time that people begin to know the possible health impacts of their housing options when evaluating homes to buy or rent.

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EPA tells Rep. Israel a Household Action Level for lead in drinking water will come “later this year”

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

In early 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first committed to developing a level that would provide context for those trying to assess an infants’ risk from lead in their drinking water.

An infant’s developing brain is extremely vulnerable to lead. Many parents rely on formula made from drinking water to feed their children. So if that water contains lead, the child is likely to be harmed.

A “Household Action Level” would help parents and public health officials know when lead in the drinking water reaches a level likely to produce an “elevated blood lead level” in an infant who is fed formula. This information can help parents and communities make informed choices about how to protect their children.

So we were pleased to see Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-NY) tweet about EPA’s response to his questions regarding the Household Action Level. As a member of the House subcommittee that funds the nation’s water programs, Israel asked the agency to provide an update on the agency’s efforts to release a Household Action Level for committee record.

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Washington Post looks at the long and painful history of Lead in Drinking Water rule

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice-President for Health.

If you missed last week’s Washington Post piece, “The EPA’s lead-in-water rule has been faulted for decades. Will Flint hasten a change?”  we suggest you go back and take a look. Post reporter Brady Dennis takes us back to the beginning to figure out how a federal rule intended to help ensure safe drinking water nationwide faltered, and why it has taken so long to fix.

In 1991, EPA issued the Lead and Copper Rule to reduce lead in drinking water that primarily relied on corrosion control. But initial progress stalled and the rules shortcomings became clear. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained at a recent hearing, the rule “needs to be strengthened.” Critics claim the outdated rule has become too easy to evade and too hard to enforce.

EPA now is developing an overhaul of the rule. Given the complexity and scope of the challenge, as my colleague Tom Neltner points out, the stakes are high and the agency needs to get it right.

Neltner should know. He served on the expert panel advising the EPA National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) which looked at the rule’s flaws. For example, EPA’s original “lead action level” was based on whether or not corrosion control was working and not on the health risk. The group Neltner served on recommended establishing a new health-based “household action level” that will empower people to make informed choices about how to manage their risk to lead hazards in water. In February 2015, EPA agreed to develop an estimated level for the panel to consider. Given the consumer’s need for the number as a result of Flint, EDF has urged that the agency move quickly to release the household action level.

EPA has indicated the lead rule update will be issued in 2017. But with bipartisan Hill support and a new Presidential Administration on the horizon, many are anxious to see it move faster.

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Lead hazard disclosure: Time to better inform home buyers and renters

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director.

Imagine what would happen if firms like Zillow and Redfin that have transformed the real estate marketplace also helped consumers make informed decisions about health hazards in the home.

In the past 20 years, if you’ve bought or rented a home built before 1978, you’ve seen it–130 words in a dense paragraph titled “Lead Warning Statement.” Below it, the landlord or seller most likely checked the box saying he or she “has no knowledge of lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards in the housing” and “has no reports or records pertaining to lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards in the housing.”

By the time you read that dense paragraph, you’d have already chosen your new home, so you likely signed the forms and put the “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home” booklet in your to-do pile; a pile that all-t0o-easily gets lost in the chaos of a big move.

Congress created this lead hazard disclosure requirement in 1992 as part of a comprehensive law designed to protect children from lead in paint. The objective was to transform the marketplace by having buyers and renters demand homes that were either free of lead paint or, at least, lead hazards.

It has not worked out that way. The marketplace for lead-free or lead-safe homes never materialized, and sellers and landlords have little to no incentive to look for problems that might complicate the transaction.

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