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City Council moves to combat lead poisoning

Pittsburgh City Council Building

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board – Pittsburgh City Council has worked with experts and advocates for two years to craft an ordinance to combat lead poisoning. On Nov. 30, the fruits of that labor were realized when the council passed the Pittsburgh Lead Safety Law, a bill that calls for routine inspections of rental homes and child care facilities to test for traces of lead and other measures.

In children, even low levels of lead poisoning can have severe consequences. It can impair memory and create or exacerbate behavioral disorders and cause irreversible damage to developing brains. It can cause loss of appetite, vomiting, hearing loss or seizures. For adults, symptoms can range from headaches, muscle and joint aches and difficulties in concentration to cardiovascular issues, renal damage or thyroid hormone alterations.

Thanks to council, Pittsburgh has taken a significant step in protecting children from the threat of lead poisoning, but there’s still work to be done.

Lead exposure can occur through breathing air, drinking water or eating food contaminated with lead dust. In 2019, the Allegheny County Health Department tested homes for lead levels after a child was diagnosed with elevated levels of lead. About 65% of homes tested were reported to have lead dust hazards; 70% had soil with elevated lead levels.

Between 2015 and 2019, nearly 850 children in Allegheny County were diagnosed with lead poisoning. City Council’s objective is to reduce that number to zero.

At this time, the primary source of contamination is lead paint, which wasn’t formally banned in the U.S. until 1978. Around 80% of the city’s roughly 70,000 rental units were built prior to that ban. Many still have lead paint.

(One bit of good news — lead levels in Pittsburgh’s drinking water declined to their lowest point in 20 years in 2020.)

The key to combatting the issue is in early detection. Council’s bill will require routine inspections of homes and child-occupied facilities built prior to that 1978 cutoff. Any lead found during inspections must be dealt with safely and the home will be reinspected. Additionally, landlords and renters alike can request lead inspections by the city, and any demolition sites will also undergo inspections and be required to implement plans that take lead safety into account. Finally, lead-capturing filtration systems will be installed in city-owned or funded buildings.

Council is funding this first stand against lead poisoning with $2 million from its share of the federal American Rescue Plan. Down the road, new funding will be needed to ensure the bill’s effectiveness, and further action will be needed to confront the problem. Council members know this and are discussing next steps, which could included providing funding for those unable to afford lead repairs and more efficient detection of elevated lead levels.

Council should capitalize on the current momentum and continue the good work of eradicating lead poisoning as a concern for residents.

Read the full editorial here.

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