Lead Poisoning Remains Public Health and Social Justice Problem in Rhode Island

In 2014, nearly 1,000 children in Rhode Island were poisoned by lead. (istock)

In 2014, nearly 1,000 children in Rhode Island were poisoned by lead. (istock)

By LEIGH VINCOLA/ecoRI News contributor

In the wake of the Flint, Mich., drinking-water crisis there has been widespread and justified outrage about a topic that is too often hidden from the spotlight: lead poisoning.

Flint is an example of extreme negligence and outright disregard for a community, causing very public and very preventable cases of lead poisoning in children. Residents are speaking out and their voices are being heard. Hopefully, a real a conversation has started about lead poisoning and the inequalities that exist for those endangered.

Lead, found primarily in paint and outdated water pipes, is a danger to young children and pregnant women. It can cause developmental delays, neurologic changes, learning disorders and other problems if ingested. The sad reality is that most of the cases of lead poisoning in this country could have been avoided and occur in lower income communities made up of families of color, making lead poisoning not only a health hazard but also an issue of social justice.

Lead paint was introduced to the United States in the early 20th century as a celebrated product that was durable and bright. It wasn’t until 1978, after many inquiries into the safety of lead paint had been made, that the federal government officially banned its use. This was a crucial step, but homes built before 1978 are still of great concern. Rhode Island has many.

The state’s Lead Hazard Mitigation Act requires that most owners of rental properties built before 1978 comply with safety standards for their buildings and tenants. Except in certain instance of exemption, landlords must obtain a certificate of conformance, proving that they have taken a lead safety course, addressed any lead hazards on the property and passed inspection by an authorized lead inspector. Property owners also are required to present their tenants with lead hazard information and respond to all tenant concerns.

The reality is, however, that these steps are often not taken by property owners and many renters aren’t well informed about the potential hazards in their home and their rights as a tenant. When there is a lead concern, taking the steps to fix it more often than not falls on the tenant and the response can be minimal both from landlords and local officials. If all parties took more responsibility for lead safety, this preventable issue could be resolved, or at least further minimized, according to advocates.

The safest — and most expensive — solution for a home with lead paint is to remove it entirely. If removal isn’t an option, there are ways to make a home free of lead hazards and safe for occupancy. Repair work must be done by a certified professional, as unsafe work can be incredibly dangerous. There are two programs in Rhode Island set up to help homeowners: the Rhode Housing LeadSafe Homes Program and the Rhode Island Residential Lead Abatement Income Tax Credit. Both could be better utilized.

Areas of greatest concern in a pre-1978 home are chipping paint, friction on doors and windows, and bare soil outside the home. These areas create ingestible lead dust and particles that are harmful. As paint begins to deteriorate, it becomes more and more hazardous. The more in disrepair a home is, the greater the risk of lead poisoning.

Historically, these cases are in the homes of people of color living in blighted neighborhoods. African-American children are three times as likely than other children to have elevated blood lead levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2014, nearly 1,000 children in Rhode Island were poisoned by lead for the first time, according to the Childhood Lead Action Project. Most of these cases were reported in Central Falls, East Providence, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket.

The Childhood Lead Action Project is a Providence-based nonprofit that supports, educates and advocates for communities in Rhode Island at the highest risk of lead poisoning. Its work is driven by community organizing, and staffers and volunteers see their mission as much a fight against racism and inequality as it is about lead poisoning.

“We are always fighting for deeper level goals of equality,” said Laura Brion, the organization’s director of community organizing and advocacy. “Flint is speaking really loud and I want to believe there’s momentum.”

Lisa Solano-Sanchez is a mother of two and her eldest Jay, now 17, was exposed to lead as a young child in their Providence apartment. As a young mother, working and going to school full time, Solano-Sanchez wasn’t aware of lead dangers.

“If someone had handed me a piece of paper outlining lead hazards, I would have paid attention,” she said.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as by law it should have, and as a result her son was exposed. Jay is a thriving, artistic teenager, but has dealt with anxiety and restlessness since his exposure.

“Education is key,” Solano-Sanchez said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to ask a million questions ... you have the right to know.”

Solano-Sanchez is now a homeowner, but she has chosen not to be a landlord. “It’s not just a business, as a landlord you are dealing with people’s lives and it matters,” she said.

The Childhood Lead Action Project helps families understand their rights, and offers programs, trainings and other educational opportunities to homeowners, tenants and contractors.

Brion said ending lead poisoning is about standing up for what children deserve. It’s about giving a voice to communities that have long been ignored. She noted that nearly 40 years have passed since a national ban on lead paint went into effect and communities are still being poisoned.