HUD Acts to Limit Lead Hazards in Low-Income Housing, But Could Do More

I’ve said my piece, at least for now, on the leaded water crisis that recently had another 15 minutes of fame. Now to the recent policy development I left hanging.

We know that lead from sources other than water poses risks to far more children. The most common is lead in the paint used on houses before the federal government banned it in 1998.

Lead in the soil around houses — from flecking paint, the exhaust formerly emitted by cars and trucks or some combination — is a major hazard too. In at least one case, nearby factory operations left an extraordinarily high level of lead (and arsenic) in the soil a public housing complex sat on.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has rules to address lead hazards is housing it owns and housing subsidized by programs it administers, e.g., public housing, housing with units covered by vouchers.

But it requires “environmental intervention” only when the blood lead level in children tested in three or four times greater than the trigger the Centers for Disease Control has recommended.

HUD has (belatedly) heeded the CDC — and undoubtedly the widespread media coverage of lead poisoning found in children who live in poor neighborhoods.

It’s proposed a rule change that would align its trigger with the CDC’s — and potentially with any the CDC subsequently adopts.

The rule would also establish more comprehensive testing procedures for federally-owned and assisted housing when a young child living there has had a blood test showing lead above the new intervention level.

Swift interim controls and subsequent longer-term measures would apply wherever the inspections found lead paint hazards. So children who hadn’t been tested might be protected from further exposure, as would adults.

But the proposed rule still leaves them at high risk for lead poisoning. For example, it doesn’t change the types of inspections required before a family with children moves into a federally-subsidized unit — or a unit that will be subsidized by the family’s housing voucher.

For the latter and some of the former, that’s just a look around the place, not an actual test of the paint, dust, etc. When inspectors do find lead hazards, landlords don’t have to eliminate them before children suffer damage. They’ve got up to 90 days to finish the job.

They do have to do some things to limit exposure sooner, e.g., clean off surfaces. But note that a child’s high blood lead level often remains the trigger for thorough inspections.

So children will remain the canaries in the coal mine. And families will still have to choose between staying where their children incurred lead poisoning and leaving, perhaps for a shelter or a home in their car — this because the proposal, like the current rule, fails to ensure they can move to another affordable place.

The proposal also preserves a big exemption — no inspection of any sort for an efficiency unit, though the prospective tenant may plan to have a child living with her.

Or she may have one on the way. The CDC warns that lead poisoning can cause pregnant women to miscarry or lasting damages to babies that survive.

The lead hazard standards HUD uses for paint and dust are themselves flawed. The agency relies on the Environmental Protection Agency’s — one established more than 20 years ago, the other dating back to 2001.

Both permissible lead levels are far higher than what scientific research would now support. (A lawsuit seeks to change them, but HUD could de-link in favor of its own.)

In short, the proposed rule is a step in the right direction, but it wouldn’t protect low-income children as well as it could. Not the end of the story, however.

Interested parties have until the end of this month to comment on the proposal. One can hope the end result is a stronger final rule — and as soon as possible.

Because the health of young children in some 128,000 homes is at risk now — or already damaged. Countless more in the future, of course.

But even a stronger rule won’t protect them. Everything we read suggests that neither HUD nor EPA has the resources to ensure that their lead-poisoning protections don’t leave seemingly protected people in danger.

The endangered, if not already damaged, aren’t only children, as I’ve briefly noted before. Some will remain exceedingly vulnerable, unless Congress acts — and not only on the resources issue.

HUD, for example, requires no lead hazard inspections of subsidized units exclusively for low-income people with HIV/AIDS, unless they’re pregnant or will have a child under six living with them.

So here are people with compromised immune systems who may unknowingly live in a place that heightens their risks of diseases they’re already prone to.

Nothing HUD alone can do about this. Congress largely exempted the units when it created the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS program in 1990, when we knew far less about the disease and what lead in the body can do.

More work then for advocates, even if HUD beefs up its proposal to afford children more protection.

NOTE: I’m indebted to a rulemaking petition filed by 30 organizations and academic experts and to Professor Emily Benfer at Loyola University Chicago School of Law for insights into he current HUD rule and what the proposal would and would not do. Opinions and any errors are my own.


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