Lead Conference: Abatement Is Dying

Even tenant-friendly specialists say it

 

Lead paint abatement as a national agenda is terminally ill.

  • There is a shortage of deleading contractors.
  • Fewer people are choosing to be deleaders and inspectors.
  • OSHA’s lead regs are so onerous that remodelers ignore them.
  • Lead lawsuits are going down, and more landlords are winning.
  • Public housing bureaucrats ignore lead abatement unless forced to do it.
  • Public funds for lead abatement are shrinking.

These facts paint a picture of lead paint abatement slowly dying. The goal was once to get the lead out of every American house that had it. The model for the nation was Massachusetts’ tough abatement regulations. But people are just not buying it.
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Who told us this? Two national experts in lead safety and affordable housing, the keynote speakers at a mid-November conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. They were Heidi Most, director of the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing, and Cushing Dolbeare, chair of the National Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction & Financing Task Force (funded by Congress).

Both speakers were afraid to attack the sacred cow of Massachusetts-style lead paint abatement. They gave lip service to the idea that lead poisoning is a real problem and that the lead paint in America’s homes should really be abated the expensive way — eventually.

But they know that aggressive abatement is unworkable and impossible. They know that if harsh lead laws are enforced, it will be a disaster for the poorest of the poor who live in the least expensive, most marginal housing in the nation.

Small owners and prohibitive cost

The crux of the problem, both speakers agreed, is that the vast majority of rental property is owned by small owners who don’t make a lot of money and cannot absorb the costs of abatement. Even Stephanie Pollack agreed. She is the high-profile, pro-tenant legal advocate from the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, no particular friend of property owners.

The problem hits hardest at the bottom 8% of the nation’s housing, some three million units that are “severely distressed.” That means the owners make no money and the families in them pay over half their income in rent.
Almost as bad is the next lowest 25% of the housing stock that’s “moderately distressed.” Together, these two categories make up fully a third of the nation’s housing.

“There is no way,” said Cushing Dolbeare, “that an owner of marginal and distressed housing can bring that housing up to code, including lead, if tenants are poor and paying more than half their income in rent. Anything that forces these owners to spend more will raise rents and put these families out on the street.” Either that, or the owners will be forced to abandon their properties. And that, too, will put these families out on the street.

“I’ve seen lots of abandoned housing on my trips,” Dolbeare noted, “and the stock was pretty darn good when it was abandoned.”

The outcome, then, of Massachusetts-style abatement laws is poor families displaced by either abandoned housing or housing they cannot afford. Paradoxically, the people being hurt are the very ones the laws are supposed to protect — poor families with children.

Stop-gaps or the real solution?

Clinging to the sacred cow of abatement, both speakers urged searching for low-cost, simple, “stop-gap” procedures to keep kids from getting poisoned — while we wait for the financing to get all America’s housing “fixed.”
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They liked the idea of searching (it’ll employ a lot of professionals), but of course everyone now knows exactly what to do to control lead exposure completely. They just refuse to admit it. Those things to do include:

  • Controlling household dust with cleaning, door mats and taking shoes off.
  • Teaching families hygiene and cleanliness by example, not with a pamphlet.
  • Covering bare dirt where toddlers play.
  • Getting tenants to report peeling paint.
  • Getting owners to repair peeling paint.
  • Pinpointing the housing that’s most likely to cause poisoning.
  • Doing blood tests only on high-risk kids.
  • Making any needed training short and free.

Recently enacted lead laws in North Carolina and Vermont were offered as alternatives to Massachusetts-style paint abatement. North Carolina gives landlords complete freedom from liability if they follow a voluntary set of procedures. Vermont (a little stricter) reduces liability when landlords take a 21/2-hour course, do simple inspections, cleaning and paint repair, and notify tenants.

What’s crazy is that they all know that aggressive lead paint abatement is dead, that it is impossible to remove the lead paint from every American home that has it. They know it’s not necessary to do it, because they know poisoning occurs only in tiny pockets of deteriorated, inner-city, low-income housing. They know exactly what to do to eliminate the remaining few cases of low-level poisoning. But they aren’t doing it. They are still “talking,” still “searching.” Why?

Hi. I’m the (junk) scientist expert witness.

“I like audience participation,” the first conference speaker said to the 80 adult conference attendees. Let’s play school, he suggested. He’d be the teacher. “Let’s see how much you know about lead.”

This was Charles Gilbert from North Atlantic Laboratories, a paid professional “expert” witness who testifies for “lead-poisoned victims” against small property owners.

So, children, where do we find the most lead around the house? In air, soil, dust, food, water, or — ahem — paint! Well, let’s look at my super-dooper chart:

Potential Lead Exposure For A Child in a Lead Painted Urban House

Air .1 — .3 ug/m3
Soil 30 — 4,680 ug/g
Street Dust 100 — 5,000 ug/g
House Dust 2 — 5,600 ug/ft2
Food .002 — .8 ug/g
Water 5 — 75 mg/mL
Paint 2,000 — 50,000 ug/cm2

(By the way, let’s ignore those pesky units of measure. Some are weights, some are volumes, some are areas. But no matter. We’ll compare ’em anyway.) Now, children, which number is biggest? That’s right, kids. 50,000 is bigger than all the others.

Okay. So lead paint has lead in it. Now what?

Well, class, let’s jump to the subject of ingesting lead versus breathing lead in. And it’s my theory that lead particles get breathed into the lungs, but they aren’t all absorbed, some particles get trapped in mucous, work back up the windpipe, get swallowed and absorbed in the stomach, and it’s important how big or small a lead particle is on if and how it gets absorbed.

Huh?!?! Did you get all that, class?

Our Junk Scientist here works like a pickpocket gang . Two distract you while the third picks your pocket. In the confusion, the audience (and undoubtedly the jury) don’t notice that he completely avoids the question: how does lead get from paint or soil into the body?

It’s getting late, kiddies. We’d better move on quick.

Now, class, once lead gets inside a body, it can change [he didn’t say does change] the “permeability of the blood-brain barrier in a random way.” So, kids, sometimes something goes into the brain that shouldn’t, and sometimes something doesn’t go in that should … and … uh … the other way round, goes out when it shouldn’t, and not out when it should, see, it’s simple. Since this is all random, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. And this guy doesn’t seem to know what moves where, when, how, or why. I’m getting confused. Let’s move on.

When “lead disturbs the blood-brain barrier randomly,” he announced gesturing wildly, it may disrupt the “pruning” of neural synapses between toddlerhood and adulthood. I guess it also may not disrupt the process. Once again, he doesn’t know where, when, how, or why.

“Are we gonna die?” Mr. Expert asks. “No. But some things that happen are much more severe.” [Cross our hearts, actual quote.] And what could be more severe than death? The public catching on to the fact that childhood lead poisoning is all smoke and mirrors. Then our junk scientist would have to work in his laboratory and not make big bucks on the witness stand.

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