The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a discussion on July 20 on the impacts of lead exposure in low income communities across the U.S. and on federal and local solutions to the problem. Panel participants, including HUD Secretary Julián Castro, framed the issue as not just an environmental or health problem, but as a housing problem and one that disproportionately impacts low income communities and people of color.
According to the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), lead poisoning impacts more than 535,000 children each year. Children exposed to lead through paint or contaminated water may suffer speech delays, hearing loss, and kidney and heart problems and often exhibit aggressive behaviors. They struggle with diminished learning ability and tend to drop out of school at a rate seven times greater than their unaffected peers. GHHI President and CEO Ruth Ann Norton described the extensive, long-term consequences of lead exposure beyond immediate health problems, including diminished educational attainment and increased likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system later on in life.
CAP president Neera Tanden moderated the panel, asking panelists why lead exposure, an issue that “feels like a problem of… many years ago” hadn’t been resolved long before the crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought the issue into the national spotlight. Secretary Castro responded that communities may simply be unaware of the existence of local environmental hazards. When they are aware, he said, they often do not have the resources to test for lead, much less remediate its existence. Secretary Castro expressed that there is a “very strong need for… resources” for local and federal programs that provide communities with healthier infrastructure.
Secretary Castro also noted that lead assessment in federally-assisted housing needed to be conducted with greater rigor. He stated that “right now Section 8 relies on a visual assessment of homes,” a woefully inadequate method of evaluating environmental health hazards in a significant share of the nation’s affordable housing stock.
Panelists emphasized that, with the necessary political will and community engagement, lead exposure is a finite, fixable problem. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges stressed that solutions “must be proactive,” eliminating environmental hazards from communities before children and families experience their consequences. Panelists emphasized that investing in solutions now would not only save money for taxpayers later, but would eliminate one more barrier to health and opportunity for many of our nation’s most vulnerable communities.