District of Columbia Mayor Seeks to Address City’s Lead Poisoning Problem with New Legislation
Despite a 1983 city law that bans lead paint in any place where a child under age 8 spends more than 10 hours per week, lead poisoning still "sickens" hundreds of District of Columbia children each year, prompting Mayor Anthony Williams (D) to propose new regulations, the Washington Post reports. According to city officials, at least 6.5% of children under age 6 have "elevated blood-lead levels," compared to the national average of 4.4%. During fiscal 1999, 291 city children had lead poisoning, five of whom had to be hospitalized. The Post reports that each poisoning case costs on average $2,000 for medical care and $4,000 for special education. District children face a "high risk" of lead poisoning due to "an aging and deteriorated housing stock," and the city's existing lead poisoning prevention program "remains inadequate, a victim of sparse resources and dysfunctional administration," the Post reports. Lynette Stokes, a city epidemiologist who monitors hazardous materials and toxic substances, said that the actual number of children who have lead poisoning is "almost certainly higher than the official estimate," as 56% of the District's housing was built before 1950 and 95% before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned. The problem is "compounded by incomplete records," the Post reports. In 1999, 2,985 of the 17,845 blood-lead screenings had missing information, and only 29% of children were screened that year, even though physicians recommend regular screenings for all children between ages six months and 6 years. Furthermore, the city has "failed to comply" with a 1993 law that requires lead screening for all children who enter early-childhood programs. The city also was supposed to complete a study by October 1995 of the 1993 law as well as gather information from public clinics and private doctors, but the study was never finished. Now, after being threatened with a lawsuit, the Williams administration has "committed to completing the review." The District Department of Health last year began to computerize children's blood-lead screening data and has "barely begun to keep systematic data -- a critical component needed to compare lead poisoning levels year to year and to levels in other cities," the Post reports. For the first time, the D.C. Council budgeted $200,000 this year for "proactive enforcement of the 1983 law."
Coinciding with "growing federal involvement in regulating lead hazards in housing" and new Housing and Urban Development Department lead abatement standards, Williams' bill would require owners of residential rental properties, foster care homes, child care facilities and schools built before 1978 to "perform comprehensive annual visual inspections of all painted surfaces." If an owner finds that the paint is deteriorating, he or she must "stabilize the paint using approved renovation practices." Williams' bill also requires "lead-hazard reduction measures" when an individual moves into an apartment and lead screenings for children under age six. As an incentive for property owners to remove lead hazards, the bill proposes a tax credit of up to $3,500 per rental property. Williams also proposed to finance lead-hazard control activities and to pay for families of poisoned children to obtain temporary housing. The bill would create a 15-member commission to study the law's impact. But the bill's potentially "most controversial provision" would allow the District's courts to "consider market share liability theory," which litigants could use to bring class-action suits against the business successors to former lead-pigment manufacturers.
Property Owners Protest
Property owners have protested the proposed bill, saying it would cost too much to enforce and "would put pressure on an already tight affordable housing market," the Post reports. For example, project officials estimate that assessing and abating all lead hazards in public schools built before 1978 would cost $27.8 million during the first two years. In addition, HUD's Office of Lead Hazard Control projects the "typical" cost of addressing problems in the "worst contaminated properties" to be $2,500. Trial lawyers also oppose the bill, saying that the existing 1983 law "makes it easier to demonstrate wrongdoing by landlords." On the other side, advocates of Williams' bill note that it is a "practical improvement" on the 1983 law. Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said, "Making houses lead safe is not as difficult and expensive as it was once thought and feared, so it is a mystery to me why the real estate industry in Washington wants to keep the current law, which basically says they're all guilty, instead of the mayor's bill, which takes a prevention-based approach." Although Williams proposed the bill in June, the D.C. Council has taken no action on it since hosting a Sept. 25 public roundtable. The Post reports that unless a mark-up session is scheduled before Dec. 5, the bill will die at the end of the month and Williams will have to reintroduce the bill during the council's next legislative session (Chan, Washington Post, 11/29).