Eliminating Childhood Lead Poisoning by 2010: PSR-LA and the Healthy Homes Collaborative Ensuring Primary Prevention
As anyone who has had to baby-proof a home knows, keeping toddlers safe from harm is a massive undertaking. Parents secure cabinets and move dangerous objects out of reach, but few realize that invisible lead dust is a potential health threat to many children.
In Los Angeles, 80% of the housing stock was built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned for residential use. Currently, two in five housing units in Los Angeles County still have lead hazards. As long as paint remains intact, it isnʼt a hazard, but when homes fall into disrepair or when old paint is dry sanded or scraped, lead-contaminated dust and debris can poison children and pregnant women. Due to their developing brain and nervous systems and increased hand-to-mouth activity, children under the age of six are at the highest risk of lead poisoning.
Lead is a neuro-toxin. Even at very low levels, lead causes permanent, irreversible neurological damage resulting in life-long learning and behavior problems. There is no cure once a child is poisoned. Therefore prevention is the best medicine. In the past, when a child was poisoned, government agencies would investigate the source of the poison and order lead abatement. This is akin to using children as lead detectors.
In response, new laws and regulations have been championed to create lead-safe environments. California Senate Bill 460 (SB 460), passed in 2003, requires keeping painted surfaces intact and using lead-safe work practices to repair or repaint them. More specifically, SB 460 requires all property owners to use lead-safe work practices when painting or renovating pre-1979 buildings and makes lead hazards a violation of health and housing codes. If property owners fail to use safe work practices, both health and housing agencies can order them to clean up and use safe work practices. If they donʼt comply, they are subject to a $1,000 fine.
SB 460 was the result of years of advocacy by the community-based Healthy Homes Collaborative (HHC) of which PSR-LA is a member and the fiscal sponsor. This effort led to a remarkable partnership between the HHC, the City of Los Angeles Systematic Code Inspection Program, and the Los Angeles County Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program to educate tenants and landlords about lead-safe work practices and enforcement. As a result, property owners in the City of Los Angeles have made more than $2 billion in lead-safe repairs to rental units.
Building on the success of SB 460, the HHC helped pass Assembly Bill 2861 (AB 2861), which was signed by the Governor in September 2006. AB 2861 increases penalties for a person who fails to abate a lead hazard after receiving an order from the Department of Health Services or a local enforcement agency. The bill makes the second or subsequent violation a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 per day or by imprisonment for up to 6 months. With the threat of jail and stiffer penalties, this new legislation (authored by Mark Ridley-Thomas and co-sponsored by HHC, PSR-LA and the L.A. City Attorney) gives us stronger tools to prevent harm to public health through code enforcement.