‘A huge first step:’ City Council set to consider lead safety law

House with lead paint

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – About a month after introducing legislation aimed at reducing and mitigating lead exposure for Pittsburgh residents, particularly young children, City Council is set to consider the bill Tuesday.

The legislation, formally known as the “Pittsburgh Lead Safety Law,” is a multi-pronged approach to prevent lead poisoning, including inspections for residential buildings and child-occupied facilities; installing lead-capturing water filtration mechanisms to ensure clean drinking water in some city-owned or funded buildings; and ensuring lead-safe practices for demolitions and renovations.

“This is something that is going to make a tremendous impact on the children of Pittsburgh and the people of Pittsburgh,” Councilwoman Erika Strassburger said at a meeting last week. “It’s going to allow for pre-emptive, or … ongoing proactive inspections of rental units. That is a huge first step.”

“What is happening without this bill is that children get poisoned by lead from the paint in their living situation, then — after they’ve been diagnosed with lead-poisoned blood — then the county comes in and inspects where they live,” Councilwoman Deb Gross said at the same meeting. “We need to get in front of that and reverse the situation.”

In Pittsburgh, around 400-500 children are diagnosed each year with lead poisoning, according to Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, the executive director of the nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment and a supporter of Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh, a public awareness campaign that has been working with council members on the legislation.

Elevated lead levels in a child’s bloodstream can affect almost every organ system in the body and can lead to lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In rare cases, the ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and death.

Children six and under are most vulnerable, as are fetuses that can be exposed to lead when calcium is transferred from the pregnant person’s body during fetal growth, according to the agency.

Children living in communities of color are six times more likely to be poisoned by lead than white children, Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said.

“What we know about lead poisoning is that there is no safe level of lead in children, and our best course of primary prevention is to prevent the exposure to lead in the first place,” she said. “That really is how we approached this particular ordinance.”

For children, lead exposure can come from the water in their homes, paint chipping off their walls or soil they play in. The most common pathways for lead exposure and poisoning are lead contained in paint, dust, soil and drinking water.

Lead-based paint was banned for residential use in 1978 but more than 80% of homes in the city of Pittsburgh were built before that threshold, according to the legislation.

Of the homes that the Allegheny County Health Department tested in 2019 following the identification of a child with an elevated level of lead in their blood, 87% had defective lead-based paint.

About 65% of the homes had lead dust hazards and 70% had elevated lead in soil levels.

“You never know which one is going to poison a child, so if you are taking care of every one of these points of contamination — if you’re dealing with this from a construction and demolition and renovation and from a water and from a paint basis — then you’re going to ensure that you’re protecting children,” said Joy Braunstein, the Western Pennsylvania Director of Policy and Development for Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group that helped craft language for the bill.

“Every day that [the legislation] is not enacted, there are more children that end up getting exposed,” she said.

Under the proposed legislation, homeowners and renters would be able to request a free lead hazard inspection for their home and tenants would be protected from retaliation from landlords.

It would also place a focus on inspections for child-care facilities and require the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections to explore a mechanism to inventory all of the child-occupied facilities that are operating within the city and were built before 1978.

The results of that inventory, as well as other inspections and remediation work, would be made publicly available.

The legislation also would require a lead-capturing water filtration mechanism to be installed and maintained in each drinking water fountain and each sink in city-owned or funded buildings constructed before 1986 and used as residential housing or as a child-occupied facility. Lead was banned in residential plumbing fixtures in 1990, the bill reads.

When it comes to renovations and demolitions, the bill would require some permit applicants to affirm their understanding of the risks of disturbing paint in buildings that could have lead and require some demolitions conducted or funded by the city to follow a “work plan” to ensure they are carried out in a lead-safe manner.

That requirement does not include private demolitions but activists from Women for a Healthy Environment and Clean Water Action said they would like to see that extended to more private projects in the future.

The Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections also would explore a pilot-program to test and document additional costs associated with deconstructing windows, doors, railings, trim, siding, porches and other materials. It would consider selling those parts after removal of lead-based paint to offset some of the costs.

“We can start doing the work at PLI [Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections] to get ready to enforce this bill,” Ms. Gross said. “That’s why I’m eager to move forward to just pass this bill so that we can actually start to put the pieces in place so we are ready for implementation in 2022.”

The new regulations, if approved, would be supported with $2 million from the city’s federal COVID relief funds, but Ms. Strassburger said council would likely need to find more sources of funding to cover all parts of the legislation.

Councilman Anthony Coghill, who voted to advance the legislation last week, expressed concern over the cost for contractors.

Under the legislation, general contractors working in the city must participate in an eight-hour lead-safety training session in order to receive or renew their license. The training, which normally costs about $200, is offered for free, Ms. Strassburger said.

Mr. Coghill, a contractor himself, said that could still add up in terms of time and lost revenue.

“My honest opinion is any contractor worth their salt remediates it himself or takes the measures to do that,” he said. “And when you say it costs nothing, the issue for me is eight hours is a lot of money.”

Council members are still working on ways to implement and enforce the legislation, Ms. Strassburger said, including providing pools of money to groups and individuals who are working to abate for lead and making sure those funds are distributed in a methodical and equitable way.

“This has been an urgent issue for many years,” she said. “And we’re finally at the moment where we can put what we’ve been wanting to do into practice.”

Read the full story here.

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