” Lead exposure is a problem that has a solution “
Lead Safe Allegheny is a coalition with over sixty members representing various diverse sectors. Two of its founding members, Karen Hacker (Medical Director, Allegheny County Health Department) and our Executive Director Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, wrote the following Op-Ed to further increase awareness and participation in the community. We envision a community in which all Allegheny County children and their families live in a lead-safe environment.
“On April 28th the Post-Gazette editorial board boldly stated, “Only by attacking environmental and health problems head on can Pittsburgh reach its true potential.” The very next day the Report of Joint State Government Commission on Lead Exposure Risk was released. Coincidental? Yes. Timely and appropriate? Certainly.
Senate Resolution 33 of 2017 directed the Joint State Government Commission to “appoint an advisory committee to conduct an assessment of the public health threat posed to children by lead exposure in Pennsylvania’s water systems and in dwellings, schools, daycares, and other places where they spend a majority of their time.” The consensus was that lead exposure still exists, there is no safe level of lead exposure and the state must act now to protect children’s health.
The Lead Exposure Risk report provides recommendations that focus on primary prevention – preventing exposure to lead before it occurs. Studies show that for every dollar invested in lead poisoning prevention, between $17 and $221 are returned to the taxpayer. We are happy to see that this report echoes and amplifies the recommendations of our own County Lead Task Force Report but provides the legislative roadmap to preventing lead exposure. This week two senate bi-partisan bills were introduced to require universal blood lead testing in children and lead testing at early learning centers. Three additional bills will soon be introduced to require drinking water systems in schools to be tested, establish a statewide rental housing registry to certify that properties are lead-safe or lead-free, and clarify the plumbing system lead ban.
Lead is a widespread issue and knows no geographic boundaries. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has concluded that all of Pennsylvania is “at risk” for lead exposure. With aging infrastructure across the commonwealth, we as a community, must take responsibility for addressing lead exposure.
We know that over 80% of Allegheny County’s housing stock was built before 1978. The Commission has recommended that “all paint on the interior or exterior of any residential building on which the original construction was completed prior to January 1, 1978, shall be presumed to be lead-based.”
While the Joint State Government Commission was conducting this work, a coalition was building within Allegheny County to further the lead work being addressed by the Allegheny County Health Department, Allegheny County Economic Development and nonprofits. Now known as Lead Safe Allegheny, this coalition has over sixty members representing various sectors: academia, community-based organizations, contractors, early intervention specialists, government agencies, health care professionals, housing agencies, insurance providers and lead-safe trainers.
Lead Safe Allegheny’s priority is to provide leadership and advocacy that advances strategic initiatives and fosters collaboration among the community by focusing on primary prevention and ultimately creating a lead safe environment. The long-term goal of the coalition is to work effectively with all partners to decrease the number and percent of children exposed to lead and to increase the volume of housing stock that is lead-safe or lead free.
Our policy strategies closely align with that of the Commission.
- Increase the number of schools and early learning facilities testing for and re-mediating lead in drinking water.
- Engage municipalities across Allegheny County to educate stakeholders and decision-makers on lead safe ordinances, occupancy permits and inspection practices that address lead exposure.
- Promote lead demolition standards developed by the Institute of Politics and create case study(ies) to demonstrate best practices. (Contaminated soil is recognized as a route of exposure and concern in the report.)
- Continue to conduct public education and outreach.
The Commission report confirms the priorities of Lead Safe Allegheny. Our work is underway including engaging municipalities, supporting schools and early learning centers with testing and remediation, and meeting with water authorities. Not only will the coalition continue to be active in Allegheny County, but it also will connect with and support partners across the state and in Harrisburg.
By enacting universal screening, Allegheny County has taken a lead in promoting primary prevention, enacting early intervention strategies and supporting families. In 2018, more than 20,000 children were screened. But some 400 children were found to have confirmed elevated lead levels over 5 ug/dL We must continue to focus on preventing lead exposure before it impacts a child’s developing brain.
Fortunately, lead exposure is a problem that has a solution. However, it takes the whole community working together to protect those most at risk, our children. This won’t be accomplished in a single year, but with a community-focused approach and engagement from many, including parents, we will ensure that exposures from lead are greatly diminished.
Karen Hacker, MD, MPH
Medical Director, Allegheny County Health Department
Member, PA Lead Task Force Committee
Executive Director, Women for a Healthy Environment
Chairwoman, Lead Safe Allegheny “