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Pittsburgh, Allegheny County officials talk about household lead issues with experts

Graph of children tested for lead in Allegheny county

Tribune-Review – Children exposed to lead have lower IQs and are more likely to develop attention deficit disorders, and adults who are exposed are at greater risk for heart disease.

That’s what a leading researcher of the problem told Pittsburgh City Council members Tuesday.

While the effects of exposure to lead have been known for more than 50 years, it remains “a lingering legacy that still contaminates our cities,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Lead was widely used in gasoline, paints and pipes through the 1960s. Although it’s been removed from those products for decades, the problem remains in areas with aging housing stock and infrastructure, Lanphear said.

Any house built prior to 1978 likely contains lead, according to Rochester, N.Y., code enforcement manager Leonard Merrit.

Lanphear and Merrit joined Allegheny County Health Department officials and Pittsburgh City Council members in a 90-minute meeting to discuss the problem and how to mitigate it.

“There is no safe level of lead exposure,” Lanphear said.

Rochester has been a model

It’s the reason that 15 years ago Rochester started an aggressive code enforcement and educational strategy that’s worked to reduce lead levels there. It’s been so successful that Rochester has shared its story with leaders from other cities, including Baltimore, Cleveland and Oakland, Merrit said.

“For the majority of cities in the Northeast, it presents a problem,” Merrit said.

In 2005, Rochester officials identified lead as a problem and worked to tackle it, Merrit said.

Working with health care leaders, they said, “Hey, we’ve got to do something about this,” Merrit said. “We’re going to lose this generation if we don’t.”

The city passed a lead ordinance that requires inspections for lead paint hazards that applies to rental units. Properties are regularly inspected and owners are given strict deadlines to take care of problem areas, Merrit said.

The cost of remediation isn’t an undue burden in most cases, Merrit said. It involves paint removal and costs less than $500, he said.

Merrit said it has worked.

According to the Monroe County Health Department, which includes Rochester, in 2006, 571 of more than 14,500 children who were screened at heightened lead levels. In 2018, 151 of about 13,200 children who were screened had levels beyond the concentration set by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For comparison, in Allegheny County in 2019, 434 of close to 24,000 children screened had increased lead levels. In Pittsburgh, there were 198 of about 5,200 children with increased lead levels, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.

Education and transparency have also been a part of Rochester’s success. It offers lead data, information about the ordinance, and maps of problem areas on the city’s website, Merrit said.

The city started slowly, using a target area and slowly expanded enforcement throughout most of the city, he said.

Allegheny County’s efforts

Allegheny County’s approach to the problem has been expanding since 2016, when the Flint, Mich. water crisis became known nationally and made people more aware of the dangers of lead, according to Lori Horowitz, the program manager for housing and community environment for the Allegheny County Health Department.

The county tests all children when they are 1 year old and again when they are 2 for lead levels. Those with increased lead levels are referred to an intervention program that aims to find out the source of the lead and find ways to remediate it, Horowitz said.

In 2018, the department hired three lead investigators and a lead outreach nurse was added by the department last year, Horowitz said.

The biggest problems in the county are lead paint and lead dust associated with deteriorating paint, Horowitz said.

Neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s North Side and South Side are the biggest problem areas, followed by East End neighborhoods, Horowitz said.

City Council members Corey O’Connor and Deb Gross organized the virtual meeting and Councilwoman Erika Strassburger also participated.

They’ve been aware of the issue for a while and Tuesday’s meeting had been in the works before the coronavirus pandemic started in March, O’Connor said.

Council hasn’t taken up code enforcement legislation like Rochester’s, but since 2017, officials have worked with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to replace lead water pipes in Pittsburgh.

The advocacy group Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh, livestreamed the meeting on its Facebook page.

Read the full story here.

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