It’s been nearly 40 years since lead paint was banned for homes in the U.S. But much of that paint still exists, and each year hundreds of kids in Massachusetts test positive for lead in their blood. Now, new regulations may force more homes to become lead-safe, while at the same time making it more affordable to achieve that goal.
Julianny is just shy of two years old. She looked around an exam room at Boston Medical Center with big, curious eyes, as Dr. Sean Palfrey talked to her mother about her lead poisoning.
“Is she taking iron on a daily basis?” Dr. Palfrey asked her mother. Julianny was exposed to lead paint on the windows of her home in Dorchester. And that's cause for concern, because significant lead exposure to children is known to cause developmental delays and impact IQ levels.
“The most important thing you can do for her now, now that’s she’s in a place that has no lead, is to teach her things, read to her, talk to her about all sorts of things,” he advised.
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Lead exposure is measured in micrograms per deciliter. And although Julianny’s level was high, at 18 5 µg/dL, it’s still below what the state considers lead poisoning, which is 25. That number is important – because when a child hits 25, that triggers action from the state. Health officials investigate the home, and the owner is required to make the home lead-safe. But the state threshold of 25 is much higher than federal limits set by the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC raises the alarm at any blood level of 5 or higher.
Palfrey has been lobbying lawmakers on the subject. “We’ve been advocating to bring the level of action down from 25 to something much more scientifically reasonable,” he said.
The state is now considering changing regulations to make 10 the new blood level limit. A bill in the legislature would make the same change. State data suggests that change would require action in hundreds of additional cases. In 2015, 565 children in Massachusetts had between 10 and 24 µg/dL in their blood.
“Which then not only helps this child, but all his siblings and future children who live in that apartment,” Dr. Palfrey said.
But as the state considers stricter standards for lead levels in children, it's going the other direction with requirements on homeowners.
“The proposed change in the laws are going to make the abatement standards much less stringent than they are,” said John MacIsaac, whose business, ASAP Environmental, tests homes for lead.
Loosening regulations may seem like a contradiction. But for many people, the state's lead law has done the opposite of what it intended. A lot of homeowners don’t want to know if there’s lead in their homes, because then they're obligated to fix it, and that can be expensive.
“Some people see this as an obstacle for selling the property," MacIsaac said. "Or if they don’t feel they have to go the extra yard to get the information, they’re not going to do that. Including realtors.”
And MacIsaac said when he’s out doing his job, he finds a lot of lead. “I would say, anecdotally, 70 percent of the time," he said.
That’s because more than 70 percent of the state’s housing stock was built before 1978, when lead paint was banned.
Children in lower-income communities tend to be disproportionately affected by lead poisoning — not because more lead paint was used there, but because homes are more likely to be in disrepair, including chipping paint.
In Boston, the highest-risk neighborhoods are Dorchester, East Boston, Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain and Allston, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.
MacIsaac said the new regulations may make homes safer. They don’t focus as much on removing lead from places where paint is intact and unreachable, which run up the cost. They target things like chipping paint and windows, which are riskiest for kids.
“We can make it safe for families, lower the cost, and we think as a result of that more people are going to get inspections done, because they’re not going to be afraid it’s going to cost them tens of thousands of dollars to bring the property into compliance,” he said.
The cost of de-leading varies wildly based on the condition of a home. But the state Department of Public Health estimates the new standard would cut the cost of lead abatement by a third. Even so, it can get pricey.
“There are a lot of resources for families to reduce the cost of lead abatement,” said Jana Ferguson, a deputy director at the DPH. She said the state gives zero or low interest loans to help offset the cost of the abatement. “In addition there are tax credits, $1500 per unit that the state provides.”
Ferguson said when the state started checking kids lead levels in 1995, there were more than 1,300 children who tested over 25 micrograms per deciliter. In 2015, there were 64 kids at that level. “So it’s been a really successful program,” she said.
But she acknowledged there’s still a way to go. And she thinks the new regulation changes, which she expects to go into effect by the end of the summer, will help getting to the ultimate goal: lead safe homes.
Back at Boston Medical Center, Palfrey seemed positive about little Julianny. That's because after her initial test, her family's landlord allowed an inspection, and has since had the apartment de-leaded.
“If her blood level is going down, which I think it will be, you do not have to come back to see us again,” he told Julianny's mother.
Palfrey said he hopes if more homeowners realize they should be testing their homes for lead, there will be fewer lead poisoned kids coming to see him in the first place.