Today, during the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) National Healthy Homes Month, Secretary Ben Carson will travel to Baltimore to advocate for safe, lead-free and healthy homes in a city that has faced significant challenges with hazardous housing and keeping kids healthy.
The twin tragedies of deteriorating housing stock and sick children have undermined generations of Baltimore’s children. Every year in this country, more than half a million children under the age of 6 are poisoned by lead through water, paint, soil or other everyday items, causing irreversible health problems that include cognitive and developmental damage, and sometimes aggressive or violent behavior.
Children poisoned by lead are seven times more likely to drop out of school than their peers. On top of the tragic and costly impact of lead exposure on children’s school performance, criminal activity and economic potential, one credible study found that populations exposed to lead in their drinking water had significantly higher homicide rates 20 years later.
The good news is that lead exposure is entirely preventable. We have the knowledge and the tools to keep every person in America safe from it, and we have ample evidence that simple steps like lead paint remediation can help change a child’s potential from blighted to bright.
As the nation’s first housing chief with a medical background, Secretary Carson is uniquely positioned to make a lasting impact on this issue, and in so doing alter millions of kids’ lives for the better. From the outset, Secretary Carson recognized lead poisoning as a particular area of concern in the housing sector. During a Senate committee hearing, he outlined how it irreversibly affects brain and nervous system development, IQ and learning potential. He has also advocated for smart investments in federal programs that reduce lead poisoning, a move that will make sure we stay on track with the progress we have made so far.
There is no safe amount of lead, for anyone, at any age. Yet, far too many communities continue to face higher levels of lead in homes, schools, food and water. In a community like Baltimore, where HUD is the single largest housing funder, the federal government has the opportunity to deliver on the promise of ending the toxic legacy of lead poisoning.
What we know is this: every dollar invested in lead poisoning prevention will return up to $221 to taxpayers. The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative has pledged to work with governments, philanthropy and the private sector to end lead poisoning in five years. This will take a collective investment of $12.5 billion, and in doing so, save our country over $250 billion in that time frame and ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her potential.
By improving housing conditions, we can not only end lead poisoning but also have a significant impact on reducing the epidemic of asthma — the number one reason that children miss school. We have already seen how this works in Baltimore. Take, for example, the case of the Smith family, where a 10-year-old boy living in a Baltimore home with high levels of lead, chemicals and allergens needed hospitalization for asthma treatment an average of three times a year. A home remediation from the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative — supported by HUD — kept the boy out of the hospital completely for the first time in his life, avoiding $48,000 in medical costs in the first year alone.
The desire to keep our children safe transcends politics, which is why lead poisoning prevention is traditionally a bipartisan issue. We commend Secretary Carson for speaking up, and for seeking out the stories of the people of Baltimore. We hope their voices further his resolve to brighten their futures — and that of our nation — through a vigorous effort to eradicate lead poisoning and ensure that every home is one where a child can thrive.
Ruth Ann Norton is president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.