Fixing America’s costly lead problem could yield billions more in benefits, report says | TribLIVE.com
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Natasha Lindstrom
FLINT, MI - MARCH 4: City of Flint, Michigan workers prepare to replace a lead water service line pipe at the site of the first Flint home with high lead levels to have its lead service line replaced under the Mayor's Fast Start program on March 4, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. The program aims to replace all the lead water pipes in the city and will target homes in neighborhoods with the highest number of children under 6 years old, senior citizens, pregnant women and other high risk homes first. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Protecting America’s children from lead is going to cost an estimated $6 billion and take up to 30 years — and that’s if policymakers act swiftly, a new report has found.

The United States has lagged behind European nations for as many as 50 years in reducing lead levels, and efforts to reduce risks by states and municipalities have been “fragmented and underfunded,” says the report published this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“As a result, lead continues to adversely affect millions of children, particularly those in low-income communities and those of color because of their disproportionate risk of exposure to sources of lead in older homes and under-resourced neighborhoods,” concludes the report, which based its findings on interviews, focus groups, national listening sessions, case studies, federal data and quantitative analyses using models by Altarum Institute, the Brookings Institution, Child Trends and Urban Institute.

SCOPE OF LEAD DANGERS

Lead emanating from peeling paint and its dust particles threaten young children in 3.6 million U.S. homes, with more than one-third of the nation’s housing stock built before 1978 containing lead paint, American Healthy Homes Survey data show. In Allegheny County , about 89 percent of houses were built before lead paint was banned.

Lead-laden service lines are pumping water from the street to sidewalks at the private homes of an estimated 5.5 million and 22 million people — including more than 17,000 homes served by the embattled Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

Alarmingly high levels of lead-contaminated water have been found at public school and child care facilities nationwide, with scant data available on the pervasiveness of lead risks in schools because most don’t even test for it.

Researchers further emphasized that there is no single source of lead poisoning for kids, with exposure not only coming from water and the chipped walls and dusty doorknobs of homes but also from aviation gas, contaminated soil and even certain types of foods, health products, cosmetics and candy.

“Financing is going to be a challenge when the cost is so big,” said Dr. Giridhar Mallya, a family practice physician and senior policy officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Philadelphia.

That’s why the new report honed in on specific policy recommendations and showcased plenty of “good leads on how communities have been able to come up with innovative solutions,” Mallya said.

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIORITY

Researchers lamented what they described as a disconnect between the level of concerns expressed by the public about lead contamination and the level of action taken by policymakers to do something about it.

Full-service lead line replacements will take an estimated 20 to 30 years to complete, the report said.

Researchers observed some of the more proactive programs to address lead dangers happened in places along the Rust Belt, such as Toledo, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Rural communities were the least active on this front.

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called for mandatory testing of children’s blood levels. All children in Allegheny County will undergo blood lead testing at ages 1 and 2 starting Jan. 1.

The overaching goal is to get to a point where all U.S. children have zero to negligible levels of lead in their blood, with medical professionals and growing bodies of research emphasizing that no level of lead in a child’s blood is safe.

Exposure to lead even at low levels can lead to cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems in young children, who are most susceptible to lead poisoning, as well as joint pain, memory problems and high blood pressure in older adults.

PRICING THE PROBLEM

The report’s authors joined with public policy leaders, community advocates and public health professionals to do a cost-benefit analysis on eliminating lead dangers in the United States.

Their results focused on a bright note: If efforts prove successful, eradicating lead risks could yield substantial savings and “future benefits” to taxpayers and children born in 2018 and over the next 10 years — up to $84 billion worth, researchers said. They estimate that every $1 spent to rid homes, schools and child care centers of lead water and paint hazards would generate $1.30 to more than $3 worth of benefits via governments savings and the health, education levels, social needs and potential earnings of millions of children.

Of those savings, $15 billion would come in the form of tax savings to the federal government and $4 billion in reduced federal spending on health care, education and criminal justice programs.

States would share another $9.6 billion in savings.

The collective “future benefits” take into account the changing value of money and apply to a single cohort of U.S. children born in 2018 as well as children born into the same households over the next 10 years.

The bulk of the estimated benefits — $77 billion — would come from increased earnings by those children.

Here’s how researchers priced the costs and benefits of fixing three leading lead problems:

• Removing lead-laden private drinking water service lines at the homes of more than 350,000 children.

COST: $2 billion.

BENEFITS: $2.7 billion, or $1.33 per dollar spent, mostly ($2.2 billion) in higher lifetime earnings and better health for children born between 2018-28.

• Eradicating lead paint hazards in older homes of more than 310,000 children.

COST: $2.5 billion.

BENEFITS: $3.5 billion, or $1.39 per dollar spent, including savings on health and education expenses by local, state and federal governments for children born between 2018-28.

• Making sure that contractors comply with lead-safe practices at the homes of more than 210,000 children born next year.

COST: $1.4 billion.

BENEFITS: $4.5 billion, or $3.10 per dollar spent, including education and health savings for local governments.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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