R.I. Activist Working to Get Lead Out for Two Decades

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Roberta Hazen Aaronson tried to leave two decades ago, but the problem, and her board, called her back. She stepped down as executive director in February, but she remains as a consultant. Rhode Island’s childhood lead poisoning problem still hasn’t been solved.

Last year the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) reported that one in 12 children entering kindergarten and tested for lead in Rhode Island has lead poisoning.

Aaronson founded the Childhood Lead Action Project in 1992 to deal with this very issue. In the 25 years since, just about every effort in Rhode Island to prevent lead poisoning is covered with Aaronson’s fingerprints. On Nov. 16, the organization she helped create is honoring her tireless work to end this statewide public-health problem. During the benefit titled "Celebrate! 25 Years of Working to Get the Lead Out," Aaronson will be honored as a “Lead Prevention Hero.”

Few people have done as much to address the state’s lead poisoning problem as Aaronson and her successor, Laura Brion. In Aaronson's 22 years at the helm of the organization — she stepped away for two years in the mid-1990s to tackle other social-justice issues — the Childhood Lead Action Project has raised awareness about lead poisoning, educated hundreds of landlords and contractors about the problem, created multilevel partnerships, helped state and federal agencies do their job, and made the industry pay.

ecoRI News recently spoke with Aaronson about the progress made in reducing childhood lead poisoning. She said lead poisoning is a preventable disease that disproportionately impacts minority and low-income communities. The Cranston resident said Rhode Island has made great strides in the past 20 years reducing the disease’s reach, but some 900 Rhode Island children are still lead-poisoned annually.

“There has been a significant decline in lead poisoning in Rhode Island, but it’s a totally preventable disease,” said Aaronson, who took a sabbatical from teaching at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to found the Childhood Lead Action Project. “Even low levels of lead can hurt a child.”

She blames a lack of compliance and enforcement and little political will for the fact Rhode Island hasn’t been able to eradicate the disease. She said the state and federal governments have some good laws, such as the Rhode Island Lead Hazard Mitigation Act of 2002, that address the problem, but she noted that too many agencies — DOH, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management — are involved when it comes to enforcement.

“It’s a bureaucracy problem,” Aaronson said. “We don’t go after enough contractors and landlords who ignore the regulations.”

For 25 years, the Childhood Lead Action Project has done its part. It takes time, effort, and money to create and run educational programs, meet with lawmakers, and advocate for the most vulnerable. Preventing lead poisoning also presents many other challenges, as it is at once a health, housing, poverty, and environmental issue.

In 2006, in what could arguably be identified as the state's most noteworthy accomplishment in its fight against lead poisoning, Rhode Island became the first state to sue the paint industry over lead. The Childhood Lead Action Project played a significant role. A jury eventually held three companies — Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries Inc., and Millennium Holdings LLC — responsible. A settlement of several million dollars was used for lead paint remediation, and for public education and compliance programs.

Under Aaronson’s leadership in 2005, the Childhood Lead Action Project was one of 15 organizations nationally to receive a Children’s Environmental Health Excellence Award from the EPA.

In fact, for much of its existence, the Westminster Street-based organization has regularly received EPA grant funding. In 2015, for example, the nonprofit received a $30,000 grant to create the “Lead-Safe Central Falls” program, to help reduce to the incidence of childhood lead poisoning and to work with residents to address the presence of lead-based paint in their community.

In a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Childhood Lead Action Project implemented an educational program called the Lead Poisoning Low-Literacy Training Project. The organization’s staff reached out to low-income communities, low-literacy communities, and limited English-language speakers to spread awareness and information.

In 2009, DOH revoked the license of Carl Truax, a certified lead inspector, because the agency determined he had filed false inspection reports. The Childhood Lead Action Project was recognized for bringing the problem to the state’s attention.

“It’s been a challenging and fulfilling journey, and I’m proud to have been part of the effort,” said Aaronson, a modest woman who didn’t want her photo taken for this story. “But we have miles to go before we can claim victory and say no more children have been lead-poisoned.”