THE HEALTH HAZARDS of lead have been known since at least the time of the Greek physician Dioscorides (200 BCE). Benjamin Franklin wrote to a colleague in 1786 about the damaging effects of hot lead type he saw in his printing business. Lead additives have been banned in US gasoline since 1996. Why then, do we continue to accept the dangers of lead paint, which uniquely harms the developing brains of children?
Just after Christmas, a federal appeals court rejected a Trump administration request to delay writing regulations to catch up to new medical evidence that young children can suffer irreversible brain damage from much lower levels of lead than previously thought. Trump’s environmental affairs secretary, Scott Pruitt, had wanted six more years to update the regulations. The court, instead, mandated that the EPA propose the new rules within 90 days, and adopt them within a year, calling Pruitt’s timeline “vague and unreasonable.”
That’s an understatement, because both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Pediatrics Association concluded back in 2012 that federal standards for lead paint and dust were obsolete and new rules were needed. But the Obama administration also dithered, conducting studies to determine if lower lead detection levels were technically feasible. Nothing seems to have happened since 2015, and now the Trump administration sides with real estate lobbies that want lead-abatement responsibilities pushed down to the states. Pruitt may yet appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Lead paint regulations are surely not the only environmental protections the Trump administration is dismantling. But the lead regulations are aimed particularly at older communities in the Northeast. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2016 found the greatest blood lead concentrations in New York, Ohio, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania — places with housing stock largely built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. The disease afflicts lower-income children most because they are more likely to be living in substandard housing with chipping paint, and because children suffering from poor nutrition — deficiencies in iron or zinc — will absorb up to 10 times as much lead as healthy children.
Massachusetts has a valuable program of grants and loans to help homeowners safely remove lead, but the state Department of Public Health estimates that only about 10 percent of the nearly 2 million housing units built here before 1978 have undergone deleading. And the state relies mostly on federal funding for the program.
The liability of lead paint manufacturers for the toxicity of their products has been a roiling dispute for decades. In California, the lead industry is backing a ballot initiative to nullify a recent state court finding that lead paint is a “public nuisance” and that its manufacturers must pay to remove it. The ballot question is a cynical ploy, because the part absolving the lead industry is buried among provisions to issue bonds for a deleading fund. It’s just that the ballot initiative would make the taxpayers pick up the bill.
The cost and complications of safely removing environmental lead may be high, but they are surely not as high as the cost to society of hospitalization, rehabilitation, special education, and lifelong care of children with lead-related learning disabilities — not to mention the lost human potential, which is incalculable. Shirking responsibility for preventing lead poisoning is both morally and economically obtuse.
On a trip to Paris in 1796, Ben Franklin visited a hospital in which patients suffering from muscle paralysis, stomach pain, and confusion were all plumbers, glaziers, painters, or others who worked with lead. “You will observe with concern,” Franklin wrote a friend, “how long a useful truth may be known and exist before it is generally receiv’d and practis’d on.” No truer words about our willful blindness have been written, but even Franklin probably wouldn’t expect more than 200 years would pass before the nation’s children were no longer poisoned.Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.