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City hosts summit on lead paint danger

Sandra Larson | 10/29/2014, 11:09 a.m.
With ninety percent of housing units in Boston were built before lead paint was banned, lead is a pervasive danger ...
A panel of fair housing experts discusses discriminatory ads posted by landlords seeking to deter families with children and avoid deleading. (l-r) Barbara Chandler of the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership; William Berman of Suffolk University Law School; John Smith, of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston; and Jamie Williamson of Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Not shown: Nancy Schlacter of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission; (Banner photo)

Mayor Martin Walsh and Health and Human Services Chief Felix G. Arroyo at a summit on lead poisoning held by the city’s Office of Fair Housing and Equity. (Banner photo)

Mayor Martin Walsh and Health and Human Services Chief Felix G. Arroyo at a summit on lead poisoning held by the city’s Office of Fair Housing and Equity. (Banner photo)

Massachusetts law dictates that any housing unit inhabited by children under age 6 must be safe from lead-based paint hazards. That means that if the building was built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned in the U.S., the owner must have it inspected and deleaded if children or pregnant women live there, or provide certification that there is no lead present.

In addition, fair housing laws prohibit owners from refusing to rent to families just because they have young children.

While the laws are aimed at both protecting children and guaranteeing families equal access to housing, results are not always as intended. Not only are children continuing to be exposed to lead, families are illegally steered away from apartments that may contain lead.

The health and discriminatory impacts of lead paint were addressed at a city-sponsored daylong “lead summit” last week that drew together city and state officials, academic experts and stakeholders from the public health, housing and nonprofit sectors. The summit, titled “Childhood Lead Exposure and Housing Discrimination: Both Bad for Your Health,” was organized by the city’s Office of Fair Housing and Equity and timed to coincide with National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week 2014.

In Boston, lead is a particularly acute problem because ninety percent of the city’s housing was built before 1978. Lead still lurks today in many of these older homes.

If lead paint is cracked and peeling or if home renovations are done without proper precautions, lead can be released in paint chips and dust and easily absorbed by toddlers and children as they crawl and play near floors, walls and wood-framed windows. Ingestion of lead or inhaling of lead dust poses a hazard to anyone, but especially young children, whose bodies and brains are still developing, and pregnant women who can pass lead poisoning to their fetuses. Lead exposure can damage the brain, kidneys, nerves and blood, and has been shown to lower IQ and cause academic and behavioral problems.

In addition to covering housing discrimination and deleading resources and training for contractors, renovators and homeowners, the summit included academic and medical experts who outlined some alarming data on the harmful effects of even low levels of lead exposure.

“We’re doing better, but don’t be fooled,” said Dr. Sean Palfrey, clinical professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University School of Medicine and as run lead poisoning prevention programs in Central Massachusetts and in Boston since the late 1970s.

Palfrey said that while only a handful of children are severely poisoned and hospitalized each year, far more are affected by lower levels of exposure that can cause lower IQ, difficulty paying attention and language acquisition difficulty.

His lead poisoning prevention programs work to educate the public on simple measures such as washing surfaces with Spic and Span or liquid soap to remove dust from window wells and corners — anyplace children’s hands may touch. While there are other sources of lead exposure, paint is still the cause of about 80 percent of lead poisoning, Palfrey estimated.