Today, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro issued welcome news about lead poisoning prevention, continuing the department’s leading role. He announced a series of HUD lead poisoning prevention initiatives as part of a “Lead-Safe Housing, Lead-Free Kids” toolkit. His goal that every child in this great nation must be safe from lead poisoning is exactly the right one. His announcement of additional funding to help local jurisdictions create lead-safe homes is also welcome news; those funds will enable thousands of children to live in lead-safe homes for decades to come
The announced initiatives track closely with many of the goals of the “Find It, Fix it, Fund It Lead Elimination Action Drive” (#findfixfund) launched last month by the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) and the National Safe and Healthy Housing Coalition (Coalition). Indeed, Secretary Castro’s announced toolkit addresses:
- Finding lead hazards: improving lead paint hazard assessments and identifying water hazards in HUD-assisted housing, as well as identifying hazards in private-sector housing;
- Fixing: updating standards to match recent science and better protect children; developing mechanisms and guidance to address lead hazards in public and assisted housing more quickly and effectively; and providing millions of dollars in grants for lead-hazard control in privately owned low-income housing, where the risks are greatest;
- Funding: calling on philanthropic partners to join the effort to eliminate lead poisoning.
The announced initiatives include urgently needed actions, such as anticipated regulatory changes to HUD’s Lead-Safe Housing Rule, to align the blood lead level requiring response in assisted housing to the CDC reference level, lowering it to 5 μg/dL (micrograms per deciliter). These rule changes are currently being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and we call for quick release to ensure children are protected. In the meantime, we urge local housing and health agencies to adopt the CDC level; nothing in the current regulation prevents local authorities from taking such action.
Secretary Castro also announced efforts to carry out more validated lead risk assessments in federally assisted housing. We hope that the initiatives announced will result quickly in lead risk assessments being required in all federally assisted housing including pre-1978 Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program homes in which children under six reside or are expected to reside. Currently, only visual assessments are required in the voucher units, which cannot measure the presence of lead dust hazards. We urge Congress to provide needed direction and funding so that HUD can implement these protections for children.
The toolkit also includes development of a consistent standard for and response to water quality issues. We appreciate this initiative and encourage HUD to carry out testing water for lead, a relatively inexpensive procedure, as part of HUD inspections and assessments and to coordinate this testing with local health and water authorities.
We encourage HUD to build on the critical steps announced today by updating the nation’s Healthy Homes Survey, which estimates the number of houses at risk for both lead and other housing-related diseases and injuries. Furthermore, we call for the creation of a plan to identify specific locations of both lead-based paint and lead pipes in all the nation’s housing stock, so that we know where the lead hazards are. This would supplement CDC’s efforts to provide GIS mapping of elevated blood lead levels called for by the Senate appropriations committee last week in its report language for the health appropriations bill.
In addition to addressing public housing, Castro’s announcement includes efforts to remediate lead hazards in low-income private sector housing where the risks are greatest. He announced $46.5 million in new lead hazard control grants to 15 state and local jurisdictions, with millions more to follow in the coming months.
In a very positive step, the toolkit encourages interagency collaboration with CDC and EPA on lead poisoning prevention. The Coalition and NCHH strongly support this and urge the Administration to convene a cabinet-level interagency task force to develop and implement a plan to eliminate lead poisoning. One us (Jacobs) participated in the prior such presidential task force in 2000, but Congress didn’t provide adequate funding to carry out the plan and met the goal of eliminating lead poisoning. The plan and funding numbers need to be updated, and we must commit ourselves as a nation to provide the resources to get the job done. The savings will be enormous – HUD’s lead hazard control program is estimated to have a return on investment of at least $17 per dollar spent.
Indeed, both Secretary Castro and I would be the first to acknowledge that the goal of protecting all children from lead poisoning will not be achieved at current funding levels. That is why the NCHH and the Coalition and others have been working with Congress to increase funding. And we have had some success. Committees in Congress have provided for an increase in $50 million for HUD’s lead poisoning prevention efforts in both public and private housing. The Coalition has requested that HUD’s program be increased from $110 million last year to at least $230 million – a funding level drawn from the interagency plan on lead developed 15 years ago. There is simply no excuse to permit this problem to continue for even more decades into the future; we know how to solve it, and we should act on what we know. We need to #findfixfund: Find exactly where the lead hazards are, fix them using both short- and long-term proven methods, and obtain the funding to make it a reality.
Finally, the Secretary’s call means that all of us must do more. That means the private sector should contribute to the solution, as should philanthropy. We need real partnerships with housing, medical, public health, financing, community development, environmental, construction, inspection, and other allied professions – and, of course, parents and community groups. All of us can and must redouble our efforts to end this entirely preventable disease.
If you’re attending the National Environmental Health Association/HUD conference in San Antonio this week, we encourage you to join our “Find It, Fix It, Fund It” meeting Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at 4:50 p.m. in conference room 11, where we’ll work together on a plan to eliminate lead poisoning.