Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – At first, Delia just thought her son, Joseph, was a little behind the curve. He wasn’t crawling or speaking at the same age as his older siblings. It wasn’t until he got to school when he was disruptive in class, unable to keep up and considered “hyperactive” that she started to worry. Joseph was diagnosed with lead poisoning, based on a test that indicated an elevated blood lead level.
By then, it was too late.
Lead poisoning has permanent, lasting effects — from lower IQ and behavioral issues to organ damage and speech and hearing problems — and no cure. Science has proved that there’s no safe level of exposure to lead for a child, as their growing brains and bodies absorb it readily. None.
Yet, the damage caused by this pervasive neurotoxin is completely preventable. The way to stop children from being poisoned by lead is to prevent exposure to lead in the first place.
This is the premise behind a Pittsburgh lead safety law, which was drafted over the past year in collaboration with experts, for use by Pittsburgh City Council as a follow-up to their October 2020 proclamation that Pittsburgh would adopt an ordinance to protect citizens from the horrors of lead poisoning.
The idea is simple: Protect children in the places where they are exposed to lead. In the city of Pittsburgh, investigations by the Allegheny County Health Department reveal the top causes: exposure to lead from lead-based paint and dust in homes (not surprising, as lead-based paint wasn’t banned until 1978 and 85% of Pittsburgh’s homes were built before then), followed by soil and water.
A Pittsburgh lead safety law addresses these common pathways of exposure to lead by embedding simple testing for lead in the city’s inspections of pre-1978 homes and child-occupied facilities; by requiring lead-safe practices as part of the permitting process for repairs, renovations and demolitions where lead is disturbed and can become airborne; and by further protecting against lead in drinking water. It is such a commonsense approach to the legacy lead-poisoning problem in our Rust Belt city that 40 local organizations representing thousands of constituents and nearly 300 residents have already signed on to a letter in support of it.
Why bother? Well, in the most recent four years of data, 849 children were newly diagnosed with lead poisoning in the city. That’s 849 children, disproportionately Black and brown Pittsburghers, who are at risk of a lifetime of devastating effects. And those 849 children join the thousands who are still suffering from the lingering problems associated with lead poisoning.
Still, even with science, community support and horrible health effects backing it up, our city’s elected officials remain slow to act as administrators balk, claiming that it’s too burdensome to include a check for lead in their existing inspections and too much work to ensure contractors receiving city permits follow proven lead-safety work standards, and, in effect, question the value of investing time and resources into preventive solutions.
The answer is so simple it should be obvious. One child lead poisoned is one too many. Multiply that by 849, and it is gross negligence not to act now.
As to cost, the Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh campaign (which is endorsed by our organizations along with Clean Water Action, Grounded Strategies, OnePA, Pittsburgh United, PennEnvironment and Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh) is offering to fund training for our city’s inspectors. And now that $355 million in funding is on the way from the federal government specifically to address such community health issues, there are no more excuses to avoid addressing this preventable problem.
Pittsburghers have the opportunity to step up to protect children like Joseph and thousands of others. This election season, ask your candidates where they stand on lead poisoning and enacting a Pittsburgh lead safety law. Do they agree that commonsense practices — adopted already by cities like Cleveland, Baltimore and Buffalo — are a smart way to combat a problem that’s plagued us for decades? Or do they continue to look the other way? If so, are those the people we want in charge? Together, we can decide: How many children do we sacrifice before we take action?