Lead Poisoning Is a Problem We Know How to Solve

HUD and the EPA should do more to ensure tenants live in housing that does not harm their health.

Quality, affordable housing is the bedrock from which families build happy, healthy, fulfilled lives.

This is especially true for families with low incomes.

Unhealthy housing, however, can have devastating, life-long consequences. Congressional action and federal regulations have successfully reduced the greatest harm caused by lead poisoning by implementing statutes and regulations. But when over half a million children have been diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels — and even more vulnerable children are not properly tested — our response must be strengthened and improved.

No blood lead level is safe, and lead poisoning causes severe and permanent biological and neurological damage. Children of color are the most at risk of lead poisoning. In its most recent study, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that 60% of children with elevated blood lead levels are Black, 16% are Hispanic, and 7% are other children of color. Most children who are poisoned by lead are poisoned in their homes.

HUD and the EPA should do more to ensure tenants live in housing that does not harm their health.

Both the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are tasked with overseeing rules and regulations designed to protect low-income children from lead poisoning. EPA’s regulations ensure our drinking water is safe and that lead hazards in our housing stock are evaluated and reduced safely. HUD’s regulations, among other things, provide specific protections for tenants living in HUD-assisted housing.

Inadequate oversight and cross-agency coordination results in failure to protect families from lead poisoning.

Last month marked National Healthy Homes Month — an important time to consider ways to improve access to safe, healthy homes. Yet unfortunately, the Trump Administration continues to move to deregulate and defund crucial programs designed to do just that. Given sufficient funding, HUD and the EPA can share resources and expertise and work with affected communities to create healthy environments for children to grow up in. Both HUD and the EPA face potential budget cuts and regulatory reform that threaten to undermine the type of cross-agency coordination that is necessary to prevent another crisis like the one in East Chicago.

Both the EPA and HUD are on a troubling path toward a regulatory reform agenda.

The proposed repeal or relaxing of EPA’s lead hazard reduction standards will increase the threat of lead poisoning among children and create a false sense of safety among residents who assume EPA is fulfilling its duty to protect them.

The EPA’s standards have not been updated since 2001 and do not reflect current science. HUD’s updated regulations, which were finalized in January following pressure from advocacy groups, will not fully prevent children from being lead poisoned in federally assisted housing because the regulations still require a child to be poisoned before intervention occurs. The regulations should instead utilize primary prevention strategies to ensure tenants in all types of federally assisted housing are not poisoned by lead.

Moreover, both agencies are facing significant budget cuts that would result in more children being exposed to lead hazards. Proposed cuts to EPA’s budget would eliminate lead poisoning prevention activities across the country. And, although HUD Secretary Ben Carson has promised to make lead poisoning prevention a priority and has proposed a welcome increase to the lead poisoning prevention program, President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program that is used by many jurisdictions for lead hazard control.

We should not tear down our regulatory framework and defund agencies charged with preventing lead poisoning.

Instead, we need to strengthen protections for families and invest in lead poisoning prevention to ensure children can grow to their fullest potential. Lead poisoning is a problem that we know how to solve. So, let’s do it.

About the Author

Emily Coffey
Emily Coffey
Emily Coffey
Staff Attorney, Housing Justice, Goldberg Kohn Foundation/Fred Cohen Fellow
she/her

312.724.8411

More Information

Housing is fundamental to achieving economic stability, better health outcomes, and thriving families and communities.

To receive the latest news and information from the Shriver Center