With Connecticut children testing positive for lead at consistently high numbers, and millions of dollars thrown at the problem with tepid results, lawmakers may finally be stepping up to seek an effective solution.
The Banking Committee is considering a bill that would create a task force to study better ways to finance the removal of the toxin from thousands of homes around the state. The task force would also investigate how to enforce abatement measures, including rental property inspections, and look into increasing workforce training in the specialized process needed to remove lead.
State Department of Public Health (DPH) numbers from 2015, the latest available, show more than 72,000 children under the age of 6 testing positive for some level of lead in their blood. More than 900 children were at levels two to four times the baseline at which a child is considered poisoned. Significant gaps in screening across the state mean those numbers could be even higher. The health disparities for lead poisoning among races and between Hispanic and non-Hispanic ethnicities remain, according to DPH.
Banking committee co-chairman and the bill’s author, Rep. Matthew L. Lesser, D-Middletown, said in an email, “My hope is that we can bring stakeholders together to identify financing models to help landlords and homeowners upgrade our existing housing units and tackle this health crisis systematically.”
Dr. Mark A. Mitchell, an environmental health physician and founder of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, said in public hearing testimony on the bill that exposure to lead “causes damage to a child’s brain and nervous system, slowing growth and development.
“These effects are permanent and lead to hearing and speech problems, lower IQ, decreased ability to pay attention, learning disabilities and underperformance in school,” he said. “[L]ead poisoning has long-term costs on health care, lifetime earnings, tax revenues and future criminal activity,” Mitchell said.
In just the past five years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has funneled nearly $40 million to Connecticut for lead abatement and related activities. That includes $12.6 million this year. Since 2003, the nonprofit Connecticut Children’s Healthy Homes Program, which is based at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford and focuses on 15 towns, has received more than $31 million in federal money to remediate more than 2,200 homes.
In addition to state agencies and Healthy Homes, money goes directly to municipalities. New Haven, for example, received more than $3 million in a multiyear grant in 2015. Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, however, has received nothing from Washington since its $2.5 million allocation ran out in October 2016, said the lead program’s director, Audrey Gaines, although it received $2.5 million in HUD’s latest round of funding and will restart lead abatement work May 1.
Lead-based paint was not outlawed until 1978. The National Center for Healthy Housing shows 61 percent of Connecticut housing, or tens of thousands of homes and housing units, was built before then.
Mitchell told the banking committee that in just the past few years, scientists have come to understand that much lower levels of lead than previously thought are harmful to children.
Helen Li, a fellow at Connecticut Legal Services in New Haven, said Connecticut is behind other states, and the science, in its legal trigger for official action. Health officials in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, for example, must investigate if a child’s blood test shows 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead or more. This corresponds with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of lead poisoning.
Li noted that Connecticut law doesn’t require an investigation unless a blood test shows 20 micrograms of lead or more, or if two separate tests taken at least three months apart show 15 to 20 micrograms of the toxin.
Lead most frequently endangers young children, whose exposure risk coincides with their peak period of brain development.
Babies and toddlers are unstoppable movers and explorers. Through frequent hand-to-mouth activity, they may ingest lead through peeling lead paint chips, which taste sweet, and lead dust, created as doors and windows in older housing open and close over the years, grinding down the paint.
Its immediate impact can be subtle or even imperceptible, since the symptoms of lead poisoning are not uncommon: loss of appetite, fatigue, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, irritability.