What Federal Policymakers Have Done and Can Do About Lead Poisoning … And What We Can Do to Prod Them

Picking up where I left off. As I said, the Flint water crisis in some ways unusual, in others not. Higher percents of young children have dangerously high blood lead levels in other poor communities for example.

And these are only children who’ve been tested — some unknown fraction. Not because the irreversible damages lead in the blood can cause have only recently been known. Not because the federal government has done nothing but compile data.

It hasn’t done all it can to protect children (and adults) from lead poisoning, however. In fact, some recent decisions have probably made matters worse.

Congress could partly undo the damage, without first resolving the conflicts holding up action on next year’s budget. And with or without Congress, the administration could increase protection for millions of low-income families.

What the Federal Government Has Done (and Not)

Lead was recognized as a health hazard a long time ago. The federal government seems to have become energized in the 1970s — hence the leaded-paint ban I mentioned, plus related provisions in the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Federal rules have required blood lead level tests and followup care for young children in Medicaid since 1989 — rules never effectively enforced, however. Congress mandated the phase-out of lead in gasoline a year later, setting 1996 as the deadline.

Congress acted again in 1992, requiring the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to issue rules protecting some tenants and homeowners against leaded paint hazards.

Both the first version and the latest, issued in 1999, apply to federally-assisted housing of various sorts built before 1978, including public housing and housing subsidized by Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers.

The rules, among many things, require “environmental intervention” when a single test finds 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in children under six. The intervention trigger is just a tad lower if multiple tests are conducted.

We’ve learned more about levels of lead in blood since then. Heeding the research, the Centers for Disease Control twice ratcheted down its high-risk threshold. It’s been 5 micrograms per deciliter since 2012.

But HUD’s standard remains the same. And the trigger for action, as you can see, is damage already done. Young children are like the canaries coal miners once used to alert them to hazardous gases — by keeling over.

Squeeze on Targeted Lead Poisoning Prevention Funds

You’ll recall perhaps that Congress capped spending on programs that depend on its annual choices about a year before CDC last cut its lead blood level threshold in half.

Two programs that help fund lead poisoning prevention have gotten whacked far more than the caps themselves required, as the Coalition on Human Needs reports. One is now worth 28.6% less in real dollars than the year before Congress set the caps. The other, focused specifically on children has lost 55.6%.

What will happen for the upcoming fiscal year is anybody’s guess, since neither the House nor Senate has even set spending targets for the subcommittees that develop program-specific budget proposals.

What Congress Could Do Now

Congress doesn’t have to wait until Republican leaders resolve conflicts and the subcommittees do their work. It could act swiftly to channel some money to Flint and other communities with lead in their water. Because others there are, though we don’t know how many.

A bill awaiting action in the Senate (how often do I have to write this?) would provide $170 million to support urgently needed water infrastructure improvements, plus $17.5 million to monitor lead exposure and alert the public if excessive levels are found.

An additional $30 million would supplement funding for three programs to help prevent toxic lead exposure, with a special focus on pregnant women, mothers and their children.

The money wouldn’t restore what the two I mentioned have lost since 2010. Nor the third, which funds health-related screenings as one of many services for low-income pregnant women, babies and their mothers.

But “Congress has a lot of catching up to do,” as CHN’s monthly report says. So one can hope — if one’s still capable of that these days — that more Senators will sign on to the bill and press Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a vote.

Meanwhile, Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced bills that would require HUD to use CDC’s blood lead level maximum as its trigger for intervention.

They would also require HUD to strengthen its risk assessment standards, which now permit just a look around the place and altogether exempt efficiency units, even if small children live there — or will.

And they’d require HUD to make it possible for a family with a young child in a subsidized housing unit to move immediately if a lead hazard is found — and the hazard has already put the child at high risk. Why HUD wouldn’t have to swift children with less lead in their blood to safety I don’t know.

HUD may have to update its rules anyway. The Shriver Center, the Health Justice Project at Loyola University Chicago and nearly 30 allies have filed a petition calling on the agency to do so. Their proposals generally resemble what the House and Senate bills mandate, but they spell it all out and add some pieces.

What We Can Do

Advocates have created opportunities for concerned individuals to support both the pending Senate bill and the rulemaking petition.

Those of you with Senators can fire off emails urging them to get on board with the bill and press for a vote. And everybody, even disenfranchised District of Columbia residents, can sign the petition to HUD.

You know that all the brouhaha about Flint and lead poisoned children will die down, as such things always do. Even friendly Congress members will turn their attention elsewhere. HUD will surely be distracted by agency leadership changes — no matter how the Presidential race nets out.

So we need to do what we can now to get as much done as feasibly can be done now.



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