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Citizens lead the way to lead poisoning abatement
April 23, 2018
OHHN: Updates on Local Lead Policies and Programs
OHHN Spring Forum, 4/24/18 2:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Spencer Wells, Community Manager Cleveland Lead Safe Network
Childhood lead poisoning is both a public health and housing problem, but first and foremost childhood lead poisoning is a moral crisis. Ordinary people of conscience are called upon to find ways to prevent the poisoning of children that happens every day in Ohio.
Saying that we are making progress is misleading. The greatest progress was when lead was removed from gasoline and paint. Since then we have been treading water...the more we test, the more poisoning we find.
Treating childhood lead poisoning is a medical problem, not a public health strategy. The necessary public health strategy is to "treat " the poisoned houses in order to keep the neurotoxin out of the hands (and mouths and lungs) of children. Unlike opioids, Ohio is not suing the lead manufacturers and sellers. Ohio is not cracking down on the lead delivery system--pre 1978 housing. Instead Ohio is promoting a "just say no" strategy by educating beleaguered low income households to clean their homes better.
Until rental property owners are required to make their products lead safe, owners have no duty or incentive to take action until the poison a child. Even then, spotty enforcement means most owners walk or sell without any remediation or disclosure of known lead hazards.
No landlord has ever signed up to be placed on Cleveland's lead safe registry which was created in 2005.
Cities can't give away lead hazard remediation grant funds. In Cleveland, the city has contracted with grassroots organizations to pay for glossy brochures to lure owners to apply for Lead Hazard remediation funding.
Because there is no market "demand" for private sector prevention, local municipalities become the delivery system for lead remediation. Alas municipal enforcement is slow, hamstrung by "silos" in city government and property rights barriers. Why not treat lead poisoned houses like drug houses?
Bring a nuisance suit, board them up, appoint a receiver to remediate them and put the cost on the property tax duplicate or...if they are already tax delinquent...sell them to responsible owners.
Instead of trying to prove owners to be "guilty" require them to become compliant.
Around the country, citizens are undertaking innovative approaches to lead prevention.
Toledo has taken the lead in Ohio in making homes lead safe
In 2017, community based organizations (including OHHN) united to defeat an effort to prevent local jurisdictions from enacting lead poisoning laws.
A bipartisan group in the US Senate is supporting the Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act which will require lead risk assessments in Federally supported housing
City of Buffalo, NY: "Blueprint issued for combatting lead poisoning" offers a comprehensive response by community institutions.
Lawsuit accuses paint industry in Milwaukee lead poisoning and California Court finds paint companies liable.
South Bend Indiana increases testing by 40% in a year--by nagging and Neighbors share stories of lead poisoning in South Bend
Landlords with lead-tainted units could lose rights to evict under Maryland bill
Cleveland Lead Safe Network, working with Legal Aid, has crafted a new lead safe housing ordinance modeled on Toledo and Rochester NY.
All of these initiatives grow out of grassroots action while, mired in mud, the public health establishment perpetuates the failed policy of using children as lead risk detectors. Just for a moment, let's assume that the current "poisoned child" system works perfectly. There are on average (2011-2017) about 1,800 new cases of lead poisoning in Cleveland every year and there are 80,000 pre-1978 rental units. When you do the math, that's 42.5 more years to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. Of course there are too many intervening variables like testing rates, depopulation and demolition to make accurate projections, but it seems likely that doing nothing will have the same outcome as the current policy. In 42 years, most of the pre-78 housing will be off the market!
In his book "Superforecasting" psychologist Philip Tetlock explains that looking at data makes us feel better, but doesn't help understand where we are heading. "Finding meaning in events is positively correlated with well being, but negatively correlated with foresight. That sets up a depressing possibility: Is misery the price of accuracy? I'll leave the existential issues for others." Cleveland Health Committee Chair Blaine Griffin is more succinct. "What I want to hear is concrete solutions... not just more statistics about the problem."
Last Friday was the fourth anniversary of the decision to shift the water system of Flint Michigan to the Flint River. Last Saturday was Earth Day, founded in the wake of the Santa Barbara Oil Blow out in 1969. Yesterday was the first hearing in years in Cleveland City Council about lead poisoning. In cities around the US, citizens are providing the foresight and the energy to say STOP to the business as usual of using ordinary people as pollution fodder. No more poisoned children in our city, in our lifetimes. When change is in the air...open all the windows!