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New Report Highlights Hidden Costs of Lead Exposure

08.30.2017

By Patrick MacRoy, Deputy Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center

The devastating tragedies of Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana, demonstrate that lead exposure remains an urgent public health crisis in this country. Effective and affordable solutions exist, however—if we choose to implement them.

Those are the central messages of an authoritative report, “10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure,” released this morning by the Health Impact Project, a joint effort of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, and to which I contributed.

While the harmful, life-long effects of childhood lead exposure are well known, less is known about what costs those effects incur on society. The Health Impact Project report enumerates those staggering costs in the context of evaluating actionable solutions, calculating how much governments and society as a whole could save by taking steps to protect children from lead.

Lead is a neurotoxin, with particularly harmful and lasting impacts on the developing brains of young children. Dust from old, deteriorating lead-based paint is the major source of exposure, but a growing body of research has found that lead in our drinking water, food supply, and various consumer products are other critical sources. Minuscule amounts have been linked to lower IQ scores, behavior problems, and learning disabilities. In short, lead robs children of their full potential.

Lead poisoning also disproportionately impacts children of color and children from low-income families, making lead one of many drivers of environmental injustice endemic to the U.S. This particular injustice is entirely man-made, as lead was callously marketed as “safe” for decades—even after science showed otherwise—by an industry that sought to evade responsibility and protect profits, aided by slow-moving and uninterested governmental regulators.

There is thus a moral imperative to end this injustice—and, the report makes clear, a financial argument to do so. The report calculated that the benefits of completely eliminating lead exposure for American children born in 2018 could be as high at $84 billion. That figure includes about $18.5 billion in extra funds for the federal government and $9.6 billion for states—in the form of increased revenue and savings to the health care, education, and criminal justice systems.

The report also found that money spent to solve the problem would result in cost savings in the long run. Simply enforcing existing rules requiring building contractors to work safely around lead-based paint would cost about $1.4 billion (the costs to contractors for tools and training), for example, but would simultaneously save $4.5 billion, the report found. Essentially, this means that for every dollar spent, society would see a return of $3.10. Eliminating lead-based paint hazards from older homes would similarly return $1.39 per dollar invested, and removing leaded drinking water service lines would return $1.33 per dollar invested.

Given both the moral imperative and the economic logic, it’s long past time to eliminate sources of lead from our environment. There is much policy work to be done at the federal level, and it’s important that our elected officials in Washington hear that this issue deserves their focus and resources.

In particular, significant funding is needed to support lead-based paint abatement in low and moderate-income housing as well as to kick-start a national effort to replace leaded water service lines. National action must also quickly put an end to ongoing and entirely unnecessary uses of lead, such as in the aviation fuel used by small planes or in the Grecian Formula brand of hair dye, which will continue to expose future generations of children to this toxin.

States and localities, however, should not wait for the federal government before tackling lead exposure in their communities. The Health Impact Project report offers a number of tested and cost effective local solutions, ranging from a simple requirement that developers not reuse existing lead service lines in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, to lead safety requirements for rental housing enacted by municipal leaders in Washington, D.C.

Maine, for example, has been a leader in lead poisoning prevention before, enacting (with support from the Strategy Center) in 2006 a nationally significant tax on paint to support lead abatement. And we can be leaders once again. As the report makes clear, we know how to tackle this crisis. All we need now is the political will to do so.