Philly aims to prevent lead poisoning before kids are harmed

This article was produced as a project for the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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Philly's shame: City ignores thousands of poisoned kids

Philly aims to prevent lead poisoning before kids are harmed

Commentary: It's time to get the lead out of Philadelphia schools

Physician's 2-year-old son poisoned by lead in their Philadelphia home

As part of a plan to prevent childhood lead poisoning, Mayor Kenney said Monday, the city will begin to enforce a four-year-old law that requires landlords to certify that their properties are lead-safe before renting to families with young kids.

A recent Inquirer/Daily News/ investigation found that landlords have largely ignored the 2012 law and that the city has failed to go after them.

At a news conference at City Hall, Kenney outlined a plan intended to protect children from being exposed to the toxic metal, which even at low levels can cause lifelong learning and behavioral problems.

Previously, much of the city's efforts have focused on removing or containing hazardous lead paint in the homes of children who were already poisoned.  

“Lead poisoning has affected generations of children here in Philadelphia and many adults in the city today are suffering from these effects,” Kenney said. “Today we are making a commitment that the next generation of children in Philadelphia will not have to face these same dangers.”

The mayor’s announcement comes in the wake of the investigation, "Toxic City,” which revealed the city did little to protect the majority of children exposed to harmful levels of lead in homes with deteriorating paint.

Of the nearly 2,700 children with high lead levels in 2015, the city Department of Public Health only activated a case and inspected the home for about 500 children who were severely poisoned.*

 In a policy change, the city will no longer renew the rental licenses of landlords who fail to certify that their properties are lead-safe before renting to pregnant women or families with children 6 or younger.

 Lead poisoning rates among Philadelphia's children have dropped significantly over the last decade, but the city still ranks among the top large U.S. cities in risk for childhood lead poisoning. More than 90 percent of its homes were built before the country's 1978 lead-paint ban.

The city’s Lead and Healthy Homes Program has struggled to eradicate this problem. The program's funding has dropped by about 80 percent over the past decade. The mayor said he intends to add money to the program's budget to ensure that landlords make their properties safe for children.

Cleveland, Baltimore, and other cities take action when a child's "blood lead level" reaches five micrograms per deciliter — the level the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has used since 2012 for health professionals to intervene. Research now shows there is no safe level of lead exposure for infants and young children. Philadelphia steps in when a child is poisoned at a level 10 and above.

“In the past, we mainly focused on remediating properties for children who have lead levels that are elevated at 10 and above," said Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner. "With this plan, we have much greater emphasis on primary prevention, preventing kids from being exposed in the first place.”

Currently, when a child's blood-lead level reaches 10 or higher, city health workers inspect the child’s home for lead paint hazards and order the property owner to fix the problem. If the owner fails to remediate the lead within 30 days, the city can take the owner to Lead Court, a special court designated to handle recalcitrant property owners. "Toxic City" found that Lead Court cases can drag on for months, especially when landlords fail to appear and judges grant continuances.

For children whose blood lead levels are higher than five but less than 10, the city will continue to offer education to caregivers about the dangers of lead.

The city will also train Department of Licenses and Inspections staffers to recognize and report such potential lead hazards as chipping and peeling paint  when responding to complaints in homes with pregnant women or small children. L&I inspectors will refer those homes to the health department for follow-up.

City health workers also will visit an additional 400 homes in neighborhoods with high rates of lead poisoning, offering education, inspections and testing.  

“The bottom line is that lead poisoning, much like diseases of the long-ago past – polio, small pox – should go the way of history,” Councilwoman Helen Gym, chair of the Committee on Children and Youth, said during the news conference.

Mayor Kenney also announced the formation of Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Group. Group members will begin meeting next month and offer guidance and recommendations.

*Of Philadelphia children tested in 2015 for lead in their blood, the Department of Public Health found 494 cases of those with lead poisoning at levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher. Of these, 369 were cases that hadn't previously been brought to the city's attention through its blood-lead surveillance program. In its news release Monday about the downward trend of lead poisoning here, the city used the totals of these first-time cases, not the total prevalence of 2015 lead-poisoning cases.

[This story was originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer.]