R.I. Lead Poisoning Program Losing Funding

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Federal funding for Rhode Island’s lead poisoning prevention program is on the chopping block and slew of health, environmental and social groups are asking the state to step in. At a May 8 hearing, many organizations pushed for a bill (H5810) that seeks $600,000 in state funds to fill the gap.

The message from these supporters was clear: lead poisoning hasn’t gone away in Rhode Island and intervention is working.

“This is one of the things in life we have the ability to do something about,” said David Bachrach, who runs the East Providence Community Development lead safe program.

Lead poisoning prevention and testing saves money for special education for students with cognitive and behavioral issues, argued proponents for the bill. According to Rhode Island Kids Count, every dollar spent saves between $17 and $221 dollars in health and education costs.

The federal funding, which goes through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the state Department of Health, is expected to stop this fall, ending the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Healthy Homes Program. The funds are needed as the CDC lowered the threshold for lead exposure in blood tests to half its current level. In 2011, one in five children entering kindergarten had a blood-lead level at the new level or higher.

The loss of funds threaten prevention programs, home inspections, medical intervention and enforcement. The Childhood Lead Action Project estimates that $17 million, or about $38,000 per student, was spent in 2012 to pay for special education costs for Rhode Island students suffering from lead poisoning. Students suffering from elevated blood-lead levels are also seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Students in every Rhode Island city and town have elevated blood-lead levels.

Jim Lucht of the Providence Plan said some schools on the South Side and West Side have 17 percent to 23 percent of students with high blood-lead levels.

“This is something we can prevent and improve the outcome for the children,” said Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick, a member of the House Finance Committee.

The bill was held for further study.