Resuming Progress on Lead Poisoning

By Rick Reibstein

Rick Reibstein is a Lecturer on Environmental Law and Policy at Boston University, Department of Earth and Environment.

I was once an enforcement attorney focusing on the Lead Disclosure Rule at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Then I provided training to real estate professionals and conducted research on awareness of lead law with students at Boston University. I have always found the lead issue maddening because it is so obvious there is much that must be done, and much that can be done, which would be extraordinarily worthwhile to do–—paying off substantially in so many ways. It would make for a healthier society, a more stable one, a less crime-ridden one, a more intelligent one. It would improve both property values and our sense that the world is just. Yet we are going in the wrong direction. The current administration is cutting funds for lead programs. The current administration is asking for only half of what the National Center for Healthy Housing, the leading source for experts, recommends.

If you go to the site of the Centers for Disease Control’s lead surveillance program, you find the statement that “CDC funds 35 state and local health departments for lead surveillance . . . . Data reporting is voluntary in states we don’t fund. We do not have a contract or other mechanism to require reporting, and in many of the states we don’t fund, there are no staff to do this work.” Our existing infrastructure for protection is insufficient. Half a million children are still poisoned, millions are estimated to have lead water pipes, tens of millions live in homes with lead paint dangers, and we know very little about how many are exposed to lead in soils or products, nor do we control well for lead brought home from occupations, or lead
from guns—which may be encountered by eating game killed with lead bullets or shot, or through breathing lead vapors while practicing shooting.

Because lead diminishes our capacities to be reasonable, to use good judgment, to control ourselves, to think, it is of critical concern, quite apart from its terrible effect on our physical bodies. Lead does not belong in our environment, and we have not yet really grappled with what this means.

For that reason, with some others who feel the same way I do, the Coalition for a Public Conversation on Lead was formed in 2016. Initially we focused on raising funds for a series of conferences called “Response After Flint,” intended to make people aware of the need for a far better response than the one we have seen. But after failing to raise funds, the effort focused on
conducting interviews with people who had worked on lead in a professional capacity, and there is now a website to house the interviews and the results of the public conversations it is intended to foster. This group held its first public conversation on lead on April 6, 2017 at the Fair
Housing and Civil Rights conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. After watching the summary video and hearing from speakers, attendees participated in the joint crafting of a message to Ben Carson, newly appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The following message was mailed to Dr. Carson:

We are writing to you because during your nomination hearings you made statements concerning the problem of lead poisoning that showed an understanding of its seriousness.


As Secretary of HUD you are in a position to ensure that each of the millions of lives for which you are responsible have a safe and healthy home. We are appealing to the nature of your position as well as your personal history as a vulnerable low-income child.


You are well suited to this position because you are a doctor, and you took the Hippocratic Oath to First Do No Harm.


It is essential that funding be provided and vigorous and prompt action be undertaken. As you are well aware this will be a smart investment, as well as compassionate, because the cost of deleading is far less than allowing this problem to persist.


These costs include the costs of incarceration, special education, health care, lost productivity, lost tax dollars, loss of intellectual and emotional capacities, diminished opportunities, the loss of the contribution that poisoned individuals would have made, and the injustice of allowing this tragedy to continue.

If you had not been able to leave the neighborhood where you grew up, the brain damage inflicted on so many children might have been your experience.

Please consider the following:


Talk to the people who live in lead-contaminated housing.

Talk to the American public about this problem.


Obtain and provide funding for removing lead from the home environment, educating the public, and performing needed research.


Address the cause of the problem by working for greater responsibility on the part of the mining, paint and other companies that have put lead into commerce.

Create a partnership with the real estate industry to better address the problem, because it is their best interest to do so, as well as ours.
Ensure universal effective enforcement and accountability.

We hope, and we wish to trust, that you will do the right thing and we hope to hear from you about your success.


Millions of children, and their families, are counting on you.

Given that the attendees had not met before the event, and that very little time was afforded for the act of joint letter-writing, it is impressive that such a comprehensive message could be crafted. It is possible to conclude that this is because the lead issue is in a respect undeniable, and that to act on lead makes such sense that people can quickly come to agreement on what to do. This is the premise that drives the effort to foster public conversation.

In late June, we received a reply from HUD’s Acting General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Why did that office respond, and not one responsible for relations with the general public? The reply thanked us for writing and stated that the Department is “currently implementing some of the strategies identified.” It said that grants will go out to “28 states and units of local governments” to “identify and control lead based paint hazards in eligible privately owned housing,” and that these grants will also promote
awareness and sponsor research.

While this is nice to know, it is inadequate. All fifty states and thousands of units of local government need assistance. The money should not just go for identification, control, awareness, and research, but for effective action that will remove the threat so that people will no longer be endangered. The letter ends with a statement of appreciation for our support and that the Department “will continue to expand on the strategies” with input from stakeholders such as the Coalition. May I express the hope to all who read this that they provide the Department with their input, and that they point out how much more needs to be done, and why.


The premise that people are inherently reasonable is what underlies hopes for civilization. The fact that by truly investing and effecting permanent solutions it could be possible to prevent further lead poisoning and prevent further commercial uses of lead that cannot be contained in closed systems, stands to reason, and gives me hope that one day we will come to our senses about this matter and realize the congruence of reason and morality.

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