Lead Paint: Eliminate the Threat or Reduce the Risk?

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Forty solid years after the Consumer Product Safety Commission implemented regulations for getting rid of lead-based paint, the US is still on the lead-based paint merry-go-round. Last week, I attended a Congressional hearing entitled “Oversight of the Federal Government’s Approach to Lead-Based Paint and Mold Remediation in Public and Subsidized Housing”, which hoped to figure out how the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can finally be rid of the pesky threat of lead-based paint in federal housing.

This comes after the HUD has already spent over $1.2 billion on these exact efforts and have made no measurable progress.

Everyone in the room agreed that lead is bad. So do we. It is a toxin that has been associated with adverse effects in the neurological, reproductive, renal, and hematological systems. Almost everyone also agreed that we should get rid of lead paint completely.

Problem is, that is incredibly expensive. Witness Julie Brewen, chief executive officer of Housing Catalyst, a public housing authority, even stated that getting rid of lead-based paint in the housing she runs is so much more expensive that it would be better to sell the housing completely and buy new apartments. That means developers and HUD have to choose between complete removal at a significant price or pushing the burden onto whoever buys the properties.

Is There a Lead-based Paint Crisis?

No, there is not a crisis of lead-based paint exposure. There can’t be. New use of lead-based paint has been banned since 1978. Though there have been reports of post-1978 cases slipping through the cracks, it remains true that the lion’s share of homes with lead-based paint were built before 1978. So this doesn’t meet the urgency criteria for a crisis.

In fact, data have shown a significant decrease in blood-lead levels in the last 50 years.

That said, people, especially children, can still affected by lead-based paint exposures today. It’s also important to note that there are multiple sources of lead exposure in the environment besides lead-based paint, including drinking water and soil. We know how to get rid of lead-based paint, so it’s one of the best forms of harm-reduction we can do for lead exposures.  

Do We Really Have To Get Rid of Lead-based Paint? Or Can We Just Encapsulate It?

There are a few ways to mitigate the risks of lead exposure from lead-based paint. Some techniques like total replacement of the surface get rid of the lead paint altogether. Others involve painting over the surface with a substance that “encapsulates” the lead. Obviously, some of these techniques are one-and-done and some may have to be reassessed in the future. While encapsulation is not permanent, it costs less and is faster in the short term.

Despite this, everyone in the hearing was dead set on removing the lead altogether. But that is not really feasible so... 

Why Not Risk Reduction for the Masses?

We know a few things about the HUD’s approach to lead-based paint exposure mitigation.

  1. They’ve spent $1.2 billion of taxpayer money.

  2. It’s not working.

  3. It could be solved using a risk reduction (rather than total elimination) option.

  4. Despite 1,2, and 3 everyone’s still insisting on total elimination.

Again, from a harm-reduction standpoint for overall lead exposures, decreased risk of lead-based paint exposure is good. But it’s not like encapsulation keeps these risks high. What we do know is that mass efforts at encapsulation would cost less, so we can reduce risk for more homes with this method.

While you can eliminate the risk altogether using other methods, if you can do that for less homes, the population risk remains.

So Congress needs to drop the idea of a “War on Lead” as Representative Cleaver announced he would like to wage. This “war” is one in which we eliminate all lead paint in the United States, but probably slowly and very expensively.

If everyone gets real about reducing population risk instead of removing the risk altogether for a smaller set of people, we all win.