Money begins to come in for local governments to address lead poisoning

For decades, city leaders in Cleveland have tried to take action to deal with the complex problem of childhood lead poisoning — mostly from lead paint in the housing stock and not as much from water pipes — and have viewed any potential solutions as complex and expensive.

Back in 2019, Cleveland Councilman Blaine Griffin called lead poisoning one of the most “complex, vexing” issues he’s ever encountered. “Sometimes it is not what is happening,” Griffin explained, “it is who it is happening to.”

What Griffin (now council president) meant was that lead paint poisoning was occurring more to Cleveland renters in poorer minority neighborhoods. And the owners of those properties claimed that they didn’t have the funding to upgrade their single-family and small apartment complexes.

As with many Midwest cities with and older housing stock, Cleveland’s major problem in implementing this important health care solution — as an estimated 1,000 children in the city are affected by dangerous levels of lead each year — was getting the necessary funding. And if the funding is gained, then the enforcement of having lead-free housing would have to be done.

Those funding and enforcement issues are closer to being solved now with recent developments in Cleveland. In late May, the city approved using $17 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to apply to fund various programs to fix the lead paint problem. The total raised now is about $120 million from a public/private partnership arrangement — including more then $50 million from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.  

The program will provide funds for homeowners and rental property owners for the necessary repairs, additional grants for landlords to have their housing officially certified as lead safe, job training for those inspectors, and housing assistance for those who currently in such homes and for lead testing on children who might have poisoning problems.

The lead paint problem in the U.S. has long been an issue that everyone acknowledged, but little action taken. It is the classic “kick the can down the road” approach, hoping that future funding solutions might suddenly appear.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long advocated taking a proactive approach to the lead paint poisoning issue, pointing out that 37 million U.S. homes have lead-based paint in them, more than 500,000 preschool children with high lead blood levels, with an national annual cost of about $50 billion for health care, special education, crime problems and other factors. 

“Lead toxicity results in substantial, population-level effects on children’s intellectual abilities, academic abilities, problem behaviors, and birth weight,” the AAP says.

Cleveland Clinic president and CEO Tom Mihaljevic, M.D. echoed that sentiment, and said earlier this year that in 2022, the large Cleveland-based health system is making lead poisoning prevention its top community priority.

“This effort is critical because prevention is the only effective approach,” Dr. Mihaljevic said. “There is no cure and no way to reverse the damage of lead poisoning once it is done,” “I want Cleveland to be safe for all children, and I know this is a problem we can solve. Our communities can only be safe and healthy when every person has the opportunity to live in a safe and healthy home.”

The reason for this problem is the basic math that has been long known by community organizers and health care professionals. While the lead paint problem exists in every city and state, it is more highly concentrated in older cities that built most of their housing before 1978 — when the U.S. began banning such paint. And while cities like Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit have a great amount of such high lead level housing stock — because of the huge economic and population growth in the early 1900s and the home building that went along with that — the economic fallout from manufacturing job loss in the late 1900s and early 2000s have made it difficult to fix the problem now.

For example, in the U.S., according to census data, 53% of the national housing was built prior to 1979. In Ohio, it is a little higher at 66%. 

But in Cleveland and Toledo, the older housing constitutes 87% and 86% of those two cities housing stock. By contrast, Columbus, whose growth was much higher in recent years and has passed Cleveland as the biggest city in Ohio in terms of population, the amount of pre-1979 built housing is 54%.

The problem is that the Northeast and Midwest states have higher lead issue problems, and the higher modern growth West and Southeast leadership think funding should be more statewide, and less national. 

But under the Biden Administration, the government spending on lead pipe and paint remediation has increased a bit on the national level, though some states have not followed through as much, including Ohio. The feds have appropriated about $3 billion in funding in its infrastructure bill for lead pipe and paint programs. The Built Back Better Act would add to that if passed.

The Ohio legislature has generally left lead paint laws and how they are enforced to local city and county government entities. The Ohio Senate recently cut $1.3 million from their state budget for lead-safe training and certification for building inspectors. But on the other side of the coin, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration did award $1 million in April for asbestos abatement and lead-based paint removal for the Spitzer Building in downtown Toledo as part of the Ohio Brownfield Remediation Program.

Toledo is pushing for lead-safe paint certification action for rental property owners.  “This is serious business because the problem we are dealing with is serious,” said Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz recently. Juanita Greene, with the Toledo Community Coalition, added, “We have our future at stake here and those are our children.”

Policy Matters Ohio points out that Ohio has the second highest share of children afflicted with lead poisoning among all the states, with 5.2% of Ohio kids being lead poisoned, compared to a national average of 1.9%. “There’s a third epidemic in Ohio, in addition to COVID and substance abuse: lead poisoning,” they write. “It is a serious public health threat — especially to children — in urban and rural communities across the state.”

What all this means for Cleveland and the rest of the state, is that lead paint remediation will be an arduous and continual struggle. Sally Martin, Cleveland’s s new director of building and housing, told Ideastream Public Media recently that nearly 9,200 rental units in the city had been lead-safe certified so far.

“But we know that there’s probably at least 100,000 units out there,” she said. “So with our rental registration, we have about 61,000 units registered. So that gives us quite a bit of shadow inventory that we still have to get to.”

“The message needs to get out that if you’re a landlord in the city of Cleveland, you have to comply with this ordinance,” Martin said. “You need to register your property annually and you need to comply with the city’s lead-safe ordinance. And if you’re not going to comply, or you don’t have plans to comply, you will be prosecuted.”