HUD plans fight against lead paint


Young children risk lead poisoning in about 3.8 million U.S. homes that contain peeling lead-based paint or high levels of hazardous lead-paint dust, according to a new national survey.

In a report prepared for Congress, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp gives the highest estimate yet of the number of American homes contaminated by lead-based paint, and he outlines a national plan to fight lead poisoning in privately owned housing.

The plan, requested by Congress three years ago, proposes offering financial assistance to lower-income families with children living in homes where lead-based paint is a health hazard.

"We must ensure that low-income families with children have access to public information and financial assistance -- to help them protect their children from the hazards posed by lead-based paint," Kemp said in a statement yesterday.

Such federal assistance could help in Baltimore and Maryland, where city and state officials say they lack the resources to eradicate a persistent and widespread health problem. There were 544 cases of lead poisoning last year in Maryland, 503 of them in Baltimore, according to the state Department of the Environment.

More than 500,000 housing units in Maryland, 200,000 of them in Baltimore, were built before 1950 and are believed to contain lead paint, state officials say.

The HUD report gives few details on funding, saying they will be disclosed next month, when President Bush presents the federal budget for fiscal 1992.

The report says a nationwide survey commissioned by HUD found that about 57.4 million homes, or 74 percent of all housing units built before 1980, have lead-based paint somewhere in them. The survey estimates that 9.9 million of those homes are occupied by children under the age of 7, those most vulnerable to lead poisoning.

Previous estimates, made two years ago by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, had said that more than 40 million U.S. homes contain lead paint, and nearly 2 million of them had deteriorating paint.

Lead poisoning can lead to mental retardation and other health problems, but even low-level exposures from ingesting lead-based paint flakes or dust can lower young children's intelligence and impair their learning ability.

Although lead paint is in most older homes, the HUD report says that "it seems clear that lead-based paint abatement has not been a major concern for private citizens or for the state and local governments that have primary responsibility for regulating housing conditions in the United States."

Only two states -- Maryland and Massachusetts -- have comprehensive lead-paint abatement programs, the report notes.

The plan proposes a coordinated federal effort, involving HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

It calls for a increased efforts to educate the public about the risks of lead-based paint, and it proposes more research to identify effective and less costly methods of testing for and abating lead paint and dust.

The report was welcomed by health advocates, one of whom charged that HUD has compiled "an atrocious record of inaction" on lead paint over the last two decades.

Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to Prevent Childhood Lead Poisoning, a Washington-based coalition of health, environmental and housing groups, said HUD has acted only in response to prodding from Congress and the courts.

But with this report, he said, "they do seem to acknowledge the problem here, and now it's a question of whether they will follow it up with responsible action and money."

The national survey found that half of the homes with deteriorating lead paint were occupied by families whose incomes were below the median of $30,000. The HUD report proposes offering financial assistance to low- and moderate-income homeowners or to landlords who lease to such families.

The HUD report estimates that removing or covering up deteriorating lead paint costs anywhere from $5,500 to $7,700 per home. Abatements in Maryland have cost even more, $8,000 to $15,000 for a three-bedroom rowhouse.

The plan calls for covering the costs of testing for lead paint, and it would require "to the extent practical" that all recipients have their blood tested for lead poisoning. But administration of the program would be left to local governments, the report says.

HUD has been involved in a $6 million demonstration project in seven cities, including Baltimore, where various abatement techniques were tested in older private housing to learn about their costs and effectiveness.

HUD also has been working on a plan for eradicating lead-paint hazards from public and federally subsidized housing. Earlier this year, HUD issued new more stringent guidelines for removing or encapsulating lead paint in public housing, and $2.5 billion was allocated in fiscal 1990 for abatements as part of public housing modernization.

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