We’re poisoning our children. Think it’s time we stopped?
There ought to be a law — and finally there can be one, if Toledo’s elected officials have the wisdom and courage to enact it.
Toledo has a big problem with lead poisoning. In much of the city, especially in its poorest neighborhoods where large numbers of African-American families live, lead is in the paint of older homes. It’s in contaminated soil — a persistent remnant of air pollution caused by the once-prevalent use of leaded gasoline in cars and trucks.
Lead poisoning is nasty business. Among adults, exposure to toxic levels of lead can cause anemia, high blood pressure, and male infertility. It can shorten life spans.
But excessive lead exposure has an even greater, and more heartbreaking, effect on fetuses and young children as their brains and bodies develop. It lowers children’s IQ, impairs their hearing, and inhibits impulse control. That causes them to do worse in school and to act out — a ticket to the unemployment line and perhaps prison. Lead poisoning inflates costs to Toledo Public Schools for special education and discipline programs.
Two of every 100 Toledo children test positive for lead poisoning. That’s twice the statewide average and a higher rate than in any other large Ohio community except Cleveland.
But barely one-fourth of Toledo kids under age 5 actually get blood tests to measure elevated lead levels, and that rate has dropped in recent years. If they all were tested, the city’s rate of lead poisoning among children would at least double, local public health officials say.
And once you test positive, it’s often too late. Toledo needs to move aggressively to prevent lead poisoning, not merely to try to react to it once it occurs. It’s a matter of improving economic productivity, promoting decent housing, reducing health-care costs, ensuring public safety, boosting classroom performance, cleaning up the urban environment, and advancing racial justice.
Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc., Toledo’s premier public-interest law firm, seeks to pursue all these goals. Working with groups that include Toledoans United for Social Action, ABLE has developed a proposed city ordinance that would require landlords to correct lead hazards before they rent properties to families with children. It would be the first law in Ohio aimed at preventing lead poisoning.
City Council needs to pass this measure, and Mayor D. Michael Collins needs to sign it — quickly. No excuse not to do it is good enough.
“When kids are going to school lead-poisoned, their ability to learn is going to be extremely limited,” ABLE’s executive director, Joseph Tafelski, told me last week. “It’s unfortunate that we as a community would tolerate that.”
Lead is a particular problem here because most of the city’s stock of private housing was built before 1950, when the use of lead-based paint was nearly universal. Low-income African-American neighborhoods are at special risk; 80 percent of the city’s cases of child lead poisoning occur in ZIP codes that are designated “high-risk” areas.
“If 80 percent of lead poisoning was happening to white children,” says ABLE’s managing attorney, Robert Cole, who heads the firm’s education practice group, “it would have been taken care of within hours of discovery of the issue. Substandard housing is at the root of the problem.”
ABLE is patterning the proposed Toledo ordinance after a 10-year-old law in Rochester, N.Y., that has nearly halved rates of lead poisoning among children in that city. The Toledo measure would not raise taxes.
Landlords would have to register with the city properties that were built before 1978, when the use of lead in paint was banned nationwide. Importantly, the proposed law does not require absolute lead removal — a process that could cost as much as $25,000 per property to do such things as replace windows and doors.
Rather, the ordinance would require landlords to pass an inspection to certify compliance with modest lead-safety measures. Exposed dirt would have to be covered with grass or mulch. Deteriorated paint would have to be enclosed. Rental properties would have to pass a “wipe test” aimed at detecting lead dust on walls.
Mr. Cole estimates the typical cost to landlords of correcting lead hazards at $400 to $1,600 per property. “We have tried as hard as we can to be effective and low-cost for property owners,” he says. “No lower standard would have an effect on lead poisoning.”
Even before its introduction, the proposal is attracting the usual objections. Government-hating libertarians blather that any further regulation would impede economic growth in the city — as if poisoned children are a boon to urban development. “Are we going to expose kids to a health hazard,” Mr. Tafelski says, “because we’re more concerned that a landlord can’t rent an apartment?”
Some in the local real estate industry warn that Toledo landlords would walk away from large numbers of low-income rental properties rather than pay to comply with the lead ordinance, adding to property abandonment and blight. That has not been the experience in Rochester, where a certificate that declares a property lead-safe has become a marketing tool. There’s no reason to think profit-maximizing entrepreneurs here would do otherwise.
Mayor Collins’ chief of staff, Robert Reinbolt, told me last week that the administration is sympathetic to the goals of the legislation. But he says the mayor’s office wants to examine the costs of the proposal, and to ensure that it includes a large element of tenant education on dealing with lead.
ABLE plans a Toledo town meeting on lead poisoning in September. Mr. Tafelski says he hopes that City Council will introduce the ordinance formally next month and pass it by year’s end. If Mayor Collins signs the measure, Mr. Tafelski adds, enforcement would start quickly in the most-affected city neighborhoods and the ordinance would take full effect within three years.
“It’s an important investment in a better community,” he says. “Toledo could be a leader in sending the signal that we care about our neighborhoods, and the children who live in those neighborhoods.”
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.