April 5, 2017; Washington Post
In the Washington Post, an ominous headline: “Trump’s EPA moves to dismantle programs that protect kids from lead paint.” The story explains how proposed funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency will undermine state and local efforts to address childhood lead poisoning. This could portend a change of strategy for lead poisoning advocates who depend upon federal financial support.
The funding cuts identified in the memo would reduce the ranks of EPA employees and somewhat reduce the capacity of state and local government to address lead poisoning. However, the impacts will not be a death knell for the federal government’s efforts to reduce childhood lead poisoning. One of the two programs featured in the Post article, the Renovation, Repair and Painting program (RRP), has regulations that are deeply embedded in the regulatory regimes of other federal agencies, most notably Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). HUD has even announced a plan to modestly expand funding for lead abatement.
The article’s authors, Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin, note that “Fourteen states—Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin—run programs to train contractors how to properly handle renovations involving lead paint, according to the EPA’s website. The rest rely on the federal government to provide training.”
The article’s authors don’t mention that thousands of contractors and industries that bid on federal, state, and local government contracts already have RRP certification and will probably continue along with little interruption. Unless these other federal and state agencies decide to change their regulations, the demand for RRP-certified contractors will continue, and someone will figure out a way to get them trained. While the Washington Post article points out some industry resistance to RRP, a Trump administration survey of industries did not find resistance to lead regulations as a problem area for the industries surveyed.
The more serious changes are in proposed cuts to state and tribal governments. These funds are used for a wide variety of programs at the state and tribal level, from public education to tracking down houses where children have been poisoned. The EPA memorandum argues that these are “mature programs” that can be handled by the states. Advocates, like the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH), claim “the evidence is clear that this is simply wishful thinking at best. If these programs are eliminated, training, consumer education, compliance assistance, and enforcement will falter, and children will be harmed needlessly.”
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Advocates for lead programs are right to fight for full funding for these efforts; they might even convince Congress to continue reduced funding or enact match requirements. But while fighting for continued funding for state and local programs, advocates also have a chance to reshape lead poisoning policies.
The EPA’s proposal to devolve lead poisoning control and prevention to the states could have a transformative effect on communities. The current EPA strategy for fighting lead poisoning is based on a secondary prevention model, which requires a child to be poisoned before state action begins. Without EPA funding to implement a secondary prevention strategy, states may be willing to innovate. The CDC writes:
In theory, primary prevention has always been the goal of childhood lead poisoning prevention programs. In practice, however, most programs focus exclusively on secondary prevention, dealing with children who have already been poisoned. As programs shift the emphasis to primary prevention, their efforts must be designed to systematically identify and remediate environmental sources of lead, including, most importantly, dwellings containing old lead paint.
HUD standards for federal housing programs may offer a starting point for a new primary prevention approach that focuses on poisoned houses, not poisoned children. Though HUD standards currently fall short of providing truly “lead-safe” housing, they do provide an alternative to the EPA-funded programs. One example of a new approach is Toledo’s Lead Safe Housing program, which takes another step away from government funded programs. Under Toledo’s ordinance, owners of pre-1978 proprieties are required to hire a state-certified lead clearance technician to identify and remediate lead risks before the property is offered for rent.
Unanswered questions remain. As with any federal or state regulation, there’s always a temptation to save a buck by cutting corners or earn a side payment by colluding with unqualified contractors. Will local governments continue enforcement without federal funding? For example, if the EPA stops enforcing the RRP rules, will Cuyahoga County take over enforcement efforts at the East Cleveland landfill site, where contractors have been dumping demolition debris into a residential neighborhood? Here’s where a broadly based coalition or network of nonprofits with a variety of skills, tools, and interests will be essential to support new initiatives to protect children and communities from lead poisoning and other environmental hazards.—Spencer Wells