Partnerships aim to make Allegheny safe from lead hazards

Man walks around old house with lead paint

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – As the Allegheny County Health Department, through mandated blood screening, is learning more about children being exposed to lead, the focus of the new Lead Safe Allegheny coalition of 16 nonprofit and public agencies is how to prevent the exposure, according to Dr. Karen Hacker, county health director.

“We’re trying to get people to understand it’s an environmental hazard,” she said in a recent interview. When she lived in Massachusetts, older homes were just assumed to have lead in the house and garden.

“Here there’s no awareness,” she said. People are doing renovations without knowing that peeling paint and dust are dangerous.

“I tell people if you are moving into a place built before 1978, you can assume there will be lead there,” she said. She cited windows, windowsills, doors and porches as the most hazardous sites. Old paint that is not peeling can be sealed to be made safe.

Before Lead Safe Allegheny was formed late last year, another coalition of nonprofits called Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh was focusing on solutions and included Women for a Healthy Environment and Conservation Consultants Inc., already active in water-filter distribution and soil-testing projects to respond to lead-exposure concerns in children and others.

WHE executive director Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis and Dr. Hacker created Lead Safe Allegheny, and it’s still gathering members. Hanna Beightley is lead coalition coordinator.

Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said the coalition works with the county’s Health Department and Office of Economic Development (which runs the Lead Safe Homes program to remove lead hazards in older homes). New people in the coalition include city and county housing authorities, physicians and managed-care groups, United Healthcare, UPMC, Gateway, trainers and contractors expert in lead-safe standards.

“We still find gaps we need to fill in,” Ms. Beightley said, such as early intervention specialists and their clients.

“Our next outreach strategy is go to those people who are living through this. To make sure they’re heard,” Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said.

In particular, they’re looking at communities with higher concentrations of children at risk.

“We know that Wilkinsburg and McKeesport have the highest blood lead levels; more than 12 percent are elevated — more than 5 micrograms [per deciliter of blood],” Ms. Beightley said.

They aim to encourage more contractors and homeowners to learn how to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule. Training is available at Community College of Allegheny County’s West Hills campus.

It can take time, they said, to make a difference in practices. Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said Rochester, N.Y., started 12 years ago with a similar coalition and HUD grants years ago to renovate housing; HUD money continues to fund the program.

Tenants in Rochester can search a database for lead-safe homes, but that option isn’t available to Allegheny County residents.

“What a burden it is on families, to have to move from place to place,” Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said. “That’s not the way to fix the problem.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the county’s many separate municipalities make it difficult to bring about a similar systemic change.

“The county can’t make municipalities do something,” he said. “The board can recommend it, but ultimately it’s up to borough councils and municipalities.”

Lead-safe demolition

Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said Lead Safe Allegheny is working on its policy priorities: safer demolitions, to prevent lead-tainted soil; safe water, through an end to partial line replacements, which worsen lead levels; and a strategy for ways to address lead in paint and dust.

To help the county’s towns, finishing touches are being made on a model demolition ordinance being drafted for the coalition by the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh, according to Butler County Commissioner Leslie Osche, co-chair of the institute’s lead-safe demolition working group.

At the same time, she said, coalition members are considering a more cautious move: the introduction of options in demolition bid specifications. Options might control the higher cost of demolition under new rules, that otherwise might reduce the number of projects possible.

Amanda Settelmaier, executive director of the Turtle Creek Valley Council of Governments, said that educating nearby residents about dust from demolition work could be a cost-effective option in safety.

“Nobody wants anybody to get sick,” she said. “Let’s not do any harm. Let’s try to mitigate situations with resources we have.” Sometimes prevention is as easy as pointing out peeling paint and sealing it with two coats of latex paint, she said.

Her COG started an inspection program for its communities, she said.

“The intention is to get trained, certified professional code enforcement officers. Each town can have 20 hours a week and we can offer someone a full-time job,” Ms. Settelmaier said. Now there is one officer serving East McKeesport, Churchill and Chalfant. The fee is $35 an hour for code enforcement.

The program followed up on a 2013 study done on the cost of blight in the various valley communities in southeastern Allegheny County. It estimated the economic impact of blight and vacant properties in that region added up to more than $19.3 million, and an estimated loss in property value of more than $218 million.

Chad Hoover, president of Chalfant Council, praised the work of the code enforcement officer in his borough in its efforts to keep properties in good shape.

“As far as the way it’s been working in Chalfant, it’s been working real well,” he said.

A house painter by trade, Mr. Hoover’s familiar with lead paint hazards, but he said good property maintenance can prevent lead issues.

To nurture the residential tax base, the borough gets help from the COG through grants to tear down neglected and abandoned houses.

“We get the grant through them,” Mr. Hoover said, “but ultimately we’re the ones directing the project.”

In recent years, he pointed out, the cost of demolition has more than doubled due to the cost of removing asbestos, which causes cancer. Two demolitions are now in the works, one on Rossmore Street and the other on nearby Lynnwood Street.

“We’ve been trying to get the houses down for two years now,” Mr. Hoover said.

Ms. Settelmaier said she recently presented the code enforcement program to the Steel Rivers COG, serving Mon Valley towns. Homeowners and landlords alike can be held accountable, she said.

Within the towns of the two COGs lies 60 percent of the poverty in Allegheny County outside of the city of Pittsburgh, according to An Lewis, Steel Rivers COG executive director. Both COGs are members of Lead Safe Allegheny.

“We have a much higher blight rate than the rest of the county,” Ms. Lewis said. “We have a higher need for demolition. Our communities, all of them, except for one, are losing population. Any time you’re losing population, your abandonment rate is going up.”

Also executive director of the Tri-COG Land Bank, with 22 community members and 19 properties so far, Ms. Lewis said she is learning a lot about the issue of lead in soil and the need for safer and affordable demolition. This summer, Conservation Consultants Inc. will be doing pre- and post-demolition soil testing at land bank demolition sites in a pilot project to examine the cost and effectiveness of lead-safe techniques.

One challenge is the cost of water for demolition — to reduce dust containing lead — can be prohibitive, Ms. Lewis said.

Lead Safe Allegheny is collaborating with municipalities through model projects like CCI’s, Ms. Naccarati-Chapkis said.

“We need to put this plan into action,” she said. “The health indicators are all clear; we know there’s a benefit to public health.”

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