Come on—Get the Lead Out!

The previous two articles in our lead series paint a pretty dire picture when it comes to lead. What we have covered is that lead is all around us, it comes from myriad sources, and if it gets into the blood, it has health, mental and criminal impacts. What, then, is being done to protect us, and what more could we do if we actually recognized the importance?


Lead surveillance and abatement was once a priority for the country. At the turn of the millennium, there was a cabinet-level taskforce established to eliminate lead poisoning in children. However, as the rates of elevated blood lead levels gradually decreased, the government seemed to lose interest, and funding for these efforts began to dry up. Congress decreased their spending on lead abatement by 43% since 2003, and the CDC has slashed the allotment by more than half just since 2009.


Along with spending less to prevent lead poisoning, efforts to measure the rates have been curtailed. The proportion of children under six measured for blood lead levels has fallen by 40% in the last five years, and 16 states do not regularly report the results of the tests to the CDC. Importantly, though, even among the states that do report levels, the amount of testing is sparse. In Texas, a state with more than 25 million people, only 184 children were tested and their results reported to the CDC, and all of them were from Houston County. If we are ever to move beyond the challenges that lead has posed, surveillance of the both the lead sources and the effects on blood lead levels will be of paramount importance.


As described previously, lead primarily reaches children through three sources: lead paint in old housing, lead pipes carrying water, and lead that has seeped into the soil. The technology exists to eliminate the risk that lead poses from each source. However, while a few communities have utilized these methods, many more have given broad guidelines for how the individual can mediate the risk. LA County, for example, suggests that that residents contact a contractor to remove lead paint or cover it with drywall, use cold water to reduce the amount of lead that leeches into it, and wipe off shoes or avoid soil patches to reduce the amount of lead tracked into the house. While these measures are helpful, they tend to either be underutilized or insufficient to have a real impact.


Some jurisdictions have instead decided to tackle lead head-on. Madison, Wisconsin, for example, decided that rather than add phosphates to the water in hopes of preventing corrosion that allows lead to enter the water from old pipes, they would replace all of the lead piping in the city. This undertaking was loud, disruptive, and cost around $20 million, but it worked; lead levels are now so low that the EPA has reduced testing from once each year to once every three years.


Lead paint and the dust that accumulates as it chips off the walls and windowsills are particularly worrisome. There are mandatory disclosure laws if lead paint is present in a building, but because lead paint tends to remain only in poorer communities, the residents often cannot afford to appropriately address the risk. Twenty-nine states and six cities, including Los Angeles, have implemented funding mechanisms to address lead paint that remains in housing. Philadelphia, for example, offers education, referrals, and full remediation for qualifying families and housing.


Lead in the soil is more difficult to fully ascertain and solve. The EPA suggests that the best defenses are to either completely remove the soil and replace with fresh, lead-free soil, or cover exposed soil with permanent concrete.


With a vast menu of options for reducing or eliminating lead from our surroundings, the logical next question goes to the cost of these programs. The American Water Works Association estimates that completely replacing lead pipe nationwide would come with a price tag of approximately $30 billion. With much of that pipe existing in private structures, a large portion of that cost would fall on the shoulders of private citizens if there were not government subsidies. Soil remediation ranges in cost from $2 to $36 per square foot, depending on severity and depth of lead penetration, so that would tack on approximately $10 billion per year for 20 years. Similarly, economists estimate that removal of lead paint from walls and windows of aged housing would run an additional $10 billion per year for 20 years.


The costs are substantial to be sure, but many experts argue that because of the detrimental effects that lead causes, the benefits would far outweigh the costs. Our next article will take a critical look at the evidence of the effectiveness of these types of remediation efforts.

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