It’s Not Just Flint — Philadelphia Has a Huge Lead Problem, Too

The biggest culprit is old, chipping lead paint. Here are six things officials could do to help right now.

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

The nation has recently come to the horrible realization that, thanks to a series of bad decisions by government officials, children in Flint, Michigan, have been drinking water that exposed them to lead. The photographs of brown water gushing out of fire hydrants and the stories of putrid smells emanating from residents’ faucets have made people throughout the country wonder if something similar could happen to their cities.

Here in Philadelphia, officials are adamant that the water supply is safe. But that doesn’t mean children are not being exposed to lead. Far from it, sadly. According to the state Department of Health, more than 10 percent of kids from Philly who were tested in 2014 had elevated blood lead levels. (The federal government’s threshold for this designation is five or more micrograms per deciliter of lead in the subject’s blood.) That 10 percent mark is more than three times the level recorded in Flint, where about 3 percent of children tested in 2014 and 2015 in that city had high blood lead levels.

Unlike in Flint, though, where the share of children with elevated blood lead levels increased after the city changed its water supply, there has been no sudden spike in lead poisoning in Philadelphia. Instead, our lead problem is chronic, which is perhaps why it rarely gets much attention. City officials say the main source of lead in Philly is not the water we drink in our homes, but the old, lead-based paint surrounding us on our walls. We have known about this problem for decades — the federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978 — and it can be mitigated. Yet lead poisoning persists, despite its devastating consequences to children and the city as a whole. Having lead in your blood can lead to a lower IQ, disabilities and possibly a higher likelihood of criminality.

So why are the lives of Philadelphians still being forever changed by lead? Some of the reasons are more obvious than you may think. And while city government has taken steps to try to eradicate lead poisoning, it could arguably do more.

There is a frightening confluence of factors that puts Philadelphia children at risk for lead poisoning. It has been recently estimated that a whopping 85 percent to 92 percent of the city’s housing units were built before 1978, which is when the country’s lead ban went into effect. Comparatively, 54 percent of homes in the United States were built prior to that year.

As if that weren’t enough, Philadelphia is also the poorest big city in the country, making it difficult for many residents to maintain their homes so that lead-based paint doesn’t crack, chip or turn to dust, at which point it can become a hazard.

The city has thrown numerous resources at this problem. In 2003, Philadelphia created its first-ever Lead Court, which has successfully reduced the time it takes for landlords to clean up cracking and peeling lead-based paint. Between 2005 and 2011, the city used federal grants to remediate more than 1,200 homes. Remediation can involve rinsing walls, vacuuming dust, and removing windows and doors. In 2011, City Council passed the Lead Paint Disclosure and Certification Law, which forces landlords to prove that their properties are lead-free or lead-safe in certain circumstances.

Throughout this time, the city has also intervened in the lives of children who were found to have 10 or more micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood, sending officials to their homes to educate their parents and determine the extent of the lead hazards lurking on their walls. 

All this work has paid off. In 2004, 12 percent of children tested in Philadelphia had levels of 10 or more micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood; by 2014, that figure dropped to 1.7 percent. But a few years ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered its threshold used to locate children with elevated blood lead levels, from 10 micrograms per deciliter to five. The CDC recently said that “no safe blood level in children has been identified.”

So we have a long way to go before the War on Lead is won.

To attack lead poisoning more aggressively, experts and children’s advocates say there is plenty the local, state and federal government could do.

The feds could give more money to the city to make the numerous homes built before 1978 here lead-safe. “Federal funding has dried up,” says Colleen McCauley, the health policy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth. Indeed, the city went from receiving $17 million between 2005 and 2011 to $3.7 million for the period between 2015 to 2018. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration says that isn’t enough. “Federal funding should be increased for both staff capacity and lead hazard remediation of homes,” says mayoral spokesman Mike Dunn. “We cannot be satisfied until we have eradicated the lead poisoning of Philadelphia’s children.”

The city could do more to educate residents about lead poisoning. Federal law requires landlords to give an EPA pamphlet about lead-based paint to tenants living in homes erected before 1978. The city’s laws go a step further, forcing landlords with tenants in pre-1978 housing who have children six years old or younger to provide a certificate showing that their property is lead-safe or lead-free. Dunn also says the water department provides customers with “regular, substantive outreach to its customers on lead poisoning.” But some argue that many Philadelphians don’t fully understand the problem. “The fact that this issue feels like a throwback to a 40- to 50-year-old problem, it doesn’t as easily resonate with people as, like, the Zika virus, which affects far fewer people but is all over the news right now,” says Councilwoman Helen Gym. To make matters worse, the city does not know exactly where the homes with lead paint are located.

The city could change the way it tests for lead in water. Though local officials insist that drinking water is not the “primary source” of lead poisoning in Philadelphia, experts say lead service lines can expose some children to the dangerous metal. To monitor this issue, the Philadelphia Water Department says it tests water for lead in accordance with the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule. But Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical ethnographer, says PWD is “gaming” that rule by, among other things, asking residents who participate in the testing to take off their faucet’s aerator. (It’s a small filter.) Both the EPA and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection have recommended, though not required, that citizens keep it on. “Aerators can end up becoming the source of lead,” explains Lambrinidou. But Joanne Dahme, a spokeswoman for PWD, strongly defends its decision. “We are adhering to current state and federal regulations,” she says. “Removing the aerator when obtaining a sample is the approved protocol that we have been using since 1992, and is based upon our experience that the removal of the aerator allows any lead particles in the plumbing to be collected in the sample, thus capturing a worst-case scenario.”

The city could provide funding to low- and moderate-income residents to replace their lead service lines. There is no money set aside for that right now. However, Dahme says the the water department is “in the process of amending an existing no interest loan program to include lead service line replacement.” And Councilwoman Gym, who is hosting a hearing on reducing lead exposure in the city, says she is exploring the possibility of providing grants to low-income residents for the replacement of lead service lines.

The city or state could try to ensure that all children are tested for lead. City data shows that at least 91 percent of children are currently being tested before the age of five. State Rep. Angel Cruz says he is going to soon introduce legislation that would mandate that all children in Pennsylvania be tested. “The situation in Flint is tragic, but I fear with inaction we may only find ourselves in a similar situation in Philadelphia,” he says. “Lead exposure levels across Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, are coming in higher than what Flint is experiencing. This is unacceptable.” Dr. Rachel Levine, the state’s Physician General, says Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration supports universal testing. Kenney, though, isn’t so sure about it. “The mayor is always open to considering policies that could help our children,” says Dunn, “but based on his conversations with the health department, mandatory lead testing wouldn’t reduce the impact of lead on the city’s children … and mandating testing is virtually unenforceable.”

The city could tighten its lead laws. Currently, a landlord must sign a statement certifying that they are complying with the Lead Paint Disclosure and Certification Law in order to obtain a rental license. McCauley of Public Citizens for Children and Youth argues that before getting a license, every landlord with a housing unit built before 1978 should be required to provide a certificate to the city actually proving that their property is lead-free or lead-safe. “What would be even better was if we did proactive inspections of rental properties,” says McCauley. “So L&I would be going out to rental properties and inspecting for violations and making sure that they know that, when they go to issue that rental license, that that’s a safe house.” Such a proposal may be resisted by landlords. Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the city’s Licenses & Inspections department, says the idea is not “off the table,” but difficult questions about it must be answered. “Will we drive landlords out of the legal housing market altogether, and what are the consequences of that?” she asks. “What will happen to the already inadequate supply of low-income housing?”

To be sure, some of these proposed changes are controversial, most of them have trade-offs, and almost all of them would cost the city or landlords extra money. But Kenney says he ran for mayor because he believes a person’s fate should not be determined by the place they were born. Until the city’s children stop being poisoned by lead in their own homes, that will continue to be an unfortunate fact of life in the city.

You can learn more about lead poisoning and how to prevent it from the City of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The city also holds free classes each month on removing lead hazards.