Getting The Lead Out: The Law Works, Except When It Doesn't

Jul 7, 2014

A law aimed at protecting children from unsafe levels of lead in their homes is working, according to a new study. But only when landlords comply with it.

Cracking lead paint
Credit Bart Everson / Flickr

A group of researchers from Brown University, Housing Works Rhode Island, The Providence Plan, and the state department of health wanted to know a law passed in 2005 was having its intended effect: to reduce toxic levels of lead in children’s blood. They compiled tens of thousands of housing records, including looking at which houses had a certificate proving they had mitigated any lead hazards and which were supposed to, under the law, but didn’t. They matched those records with the results of a blood test every kid in Rhode Island must have to check for lead poisoning.

And The Providence Plan’s Alyssa Sylvaria says they found a probable link:

“For the properties that did get compliant, that the blood levels had actually declined for the children who lived there.”

...Meaning that kids living in houses where landlords had followed the law and cleaned up any lead paint had lower levels of lead in the blood than those whose landlords had not complied.

Paint used to contain lead until it was outlawed, so the law requires the owners of mostly older, multi-family homes to mitigate lead hazards. But Sylvaria says too many properties are exempt from the law.

So what are the implications of such a study? The researchers suggest that more enforcement of the law could help, but so could requiring more landlords to comply. There are exemptions for homeowners who live on the property, for example. But as a researcher told me today, how can you have a truly broad public health prevention program if most properties are exempt?

The issue matters because lead in toxic levels in the blood can cause, in a nutshell, serious problems - developmental delays, etc. Also, children living in the homes in this study - mainly in Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket - may be at greater risk of living in substandard rental housing, whose tenants might lack the resources needed to ensure the problem is addressed.

The research appears in the American Journal of Public Health.