As lead cleanup lags in Allegheny County, poisoned children at risk

Theresa Clift
| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 4:24 p.m.
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Some lead-poisoned children in Allegheny County remain in contaminated homes months longer than they would if the county strictly enforced cleanup rules, a Trib analysis found.

The Allegheny County Health Department has not penalized owners of nine rental properties who failed to correct all lead paint hazards within the allotted 30 days, according to the department.

The county has allowed lead to linger for more than two months at seven of those properties and for nearly six months at one property. They still have not been cleaned up.

Children with elevated levels of lead in their blood lived in all the homes when they were inspected, and the department has not issued fines or penalties to any of the owners.

“There's no reason I can think of that it would take six months to repair that,” said David Jacobs, chief scientist at the National Center for Healthy Housing, a nonprofit advocacy group, referring to lead-tainted paint and dust.

The county also targets fewer homeowners in the first place for cleanup compared to counties of a similar size in other states, suggesting more children are living in homes with damaging levels of lead paint or dust, Jacobs said.

Allegheny County ordered owners of just 15 rental properties to eliminate lead last year, and issued one fine in the last 15 months for not complying, the Trib found.

“Most jurisdictions around the size of Allegheny County have many more properties that have a violation and they order abatement, so it sounds like it's low,” Jacobs said.

The Philadelphia health department, which issues fines for both rental and occupant-owned properties, notified 154 owners last year they were violating lead rules, said James Garrow, health department spokesman.

“After 30 days we do go to the next step,” Garrow said. “We're looking for full compliance. It's less about the building, and more about the child being in danger.”

Allegheny County has about 1.2 million people. Philadelphia has about 1.5 million. About 90 percent of residences in Allegheny County and Philadelphia were built before 1978, when lead paint was banned.

Dr. Karen Hacker, executive director of the Allegheny County Health Department, told the county's Board of Health in July that children living with lead in their homes could suffer learning and behavioral problems.

“The evidence implies that there is no safe level of lead exposure,” stated a PowerPoint from which Hacker read.

The federal threshold for an “elevated” level is 5 mcg/dL.

All landlords who have received Allegheny County lead violation notices own properties where a child is living with a confirmed blood lead level of 10 or 15 mcg/dL or higher. The two levels are the result of the department lowering its threshold for home inspections.

The violation notices state if the lead hazards are not cleared in 30 days, the county can impose civil penalties, but department officials say they prefer not to penalize landlords who at least begin to address the problems.

“If they're making progress, we're probably not going to fine them,” said David Namey, program chief for the department's housing and community environment program. “It could be months before we actually impose a fine.”

Hacker said the low number of fines shows that landlords generally comply.

“We want these guys to clean things up,” Hacker said. “They're moving forward. It may not be as quickly as we'd like, but they're moving forward.”

The work to abate lead usually requires scraping lead paint and repainting, Namey said. In some cases, it involves laying carpet or rubber treads over floor surfaces or staircases where lead was found.

If tenants move out, the notices prohibit the landlord from letting new tenants move in before fixing the lead issues. But for lead-poisoned children who continue to live there, it could be months before the lead hazards are removed.

FEW INSPECTIONS

Last year, Allegheny County's 15 violation notices were issued as the result of 24 home lead inspections, Namey said.

Allegheny County conducts lead inspections only in homes where a child has had a capillary blood test that shows a lead level higher than 10 mcg/dL, which is then confirmed with a more painful venous test.

Last year, 14,088 of the county's children younger than 6 received a lead test, Hacker said. Many received the test before turning 1, she said. That's less than half of the 39,374 residents who are 1 or 2, according to 2015 Census estimates.

Those tests resulted in 70 children with confirmed lead levels of 10 mcg/dL or higher last year, according to county data. In 2014, the tests resulted in 96 children with confirmed lead levels over 10, but 205 with lead levels over 10 from capillary tests alone.

Philadelphia also does home lead inspections when children have lead levels at 10 mcg/dL and higher.

In November, Allegheny County started performing inspections for children starting at 10 mcg/dL instead of 15. The county has never found water to be the primary source for a child's lead poisoning – it's usually paint, Hacker said.

Related: An ‘elevated' lead level isn't enough for Allegheny County to help some kids

The department is on track to do more home lead inspections this year, with 18 done so far, resulting in eight violation notices, Namey said last week. Of those, one has been resolved and seven are still open. No fines or penalties have been issued.

If Allegheny County Council passes proposed legislation to require mandatory blood lead testing for all children aged 1 to 2, the department will perform more inspections. That would likely mean more violation notices, but officials said they don't plan to impose penalties more quickly.

LANDLORDS KEPT SECRET

The department declined to release the addresses of the properties where violations were issued, or the identities of the landlords, citing a medical records privacy provision in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The county released the ZIP codes of the properties of the open cases so far this year. They include two properties in the McKees Rocks/Kennedy area, one on the North Side, one in Bloomfield/Garfield area, one in Mount Oliver and one in Wall/Wilmerding area. Five were single-family homes and two were apartments.

At least two of the properties given notices in 2016 housed tenants under the federal government's Section 8 voucher program, which offers subsidies to help the elderly, poor and disabled afford “decent, safe, and sanitary housing.”

The department does not require landlords to disclose whether the property is Section 8, so there could be more.

When landlords do disclose it, the county health department notifies the appropriate housing authority, Namey said.

One of the properties where the lead contamination lingers from a 2016 notice is a Section 8 property, meaning the landlord is collecting taxpayer subsidies through the voucher program while they take months to eliminate the lead hazards.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669 or tclift@tribweb.com.

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