Lead's a killer: Let's get it out

Benjamin L. Cardin

November 29, 1991|By Benjamin L. Cardin

EVERY DAY millions of American children breathe and ingest minute particles of lead-based paint that will doom them to a lifetime of ill health and limited achievement. Twenty years ago Congress declared a national mandate to eradicate lead poisoning; yet today lead poisoning affects as many as 4 million children under age 6.

The information on lead poisoning is well documented and alarming. Even though the Bush administration has declared lead poisoning "the No. 1 enBenjamin L.Cardinvironmental hazard facing children," 57 million homes still contain some lead-based paint. Experts agree that deteriorated lead-based paint is the primary source of lead poisoning in this country.

Lead poisoning is truly a catastrophe for its victim. Scientists know that even small amounts of lead -- which are stored in the bones, kidneys and brain for years -- have the greatest impact on the rapidly developing nervous systems of children.

Studies show that lead poisoning in children results in lower IQs, reading and learning disabilities, reduced attention span, hyperactivity and other behavior problems. Low-level toxicity has been shown to be such a grave health risk that the Centers for Disease Control recently lowered its standard for defining "lead toxicity."

Also impeding progress in preventing lead poisoning has been the mistaken perception that lead poisoning is a problem only of the urban poor. The reality is that more children living above the poverty line are at risk than those living below it.

Baltimore is fortunate to have one of the most aggressive lead-control programs in the country. It is one of the very few cities that helps remove lead-based paint from homes of children suffering from high-level exposure. Unfortunately, for the thousands of children who suffer from low-level exposure there is little help available. Most cities do not even have this basic policy.

How can it be that everyone seems to agree that lead poisoning is a major health hazard, but so little has been done about it? A big part of the answer to that question is money.

There's no denying that in these economically troubled times no one wants to contemplate a new, large expenditure -- even for as worthy a cause as lead poisoning. But there is a way to avoid the money crunch.

I have proposed the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Act, which would fund lead abatement programs through an excise fee on newly mined and recycled lead. The excise fee would be 75 cents per pound on newly mined lead and 37 cents per pound on recycled lead. This fee has a two-tier formula to help stimulate increased recycling of lead, a major environmental goal.

The excise fee on lead would create a trust fund of $1 billion a year to finance lead abatement programs. These funds would be allocated to local jurisdictions through a grant process based on poverty levels and age of housing.

U.S. industries use about 1 million tons of new lead each year. More than 70 percent of this lead is used for car batteries. Because the price of lead has decreased in the past 10 years, the number of car batteries being recycled has also declined. Currently, 20 percent of all car batteries in the United States find their way to municipal dumps and landfills, contributing to contamination of our environment.

By generating revenues from an excise fee on lead, this legislation would in no way impact on the federal deficit. Instead, it calls for the lead industry to finance the environment cleanup of its own product, a sensible solution.

Owners and landlords of older, inner-city housing that is often filled with lead-paint particles will find this bill helpful in financing costly lead abatement requirements.

While many landlords may object to local abatement regulations, the reality is that they're here to stay. Without legislation aimed at removal costs, there is a danger that landlords will decide to board up properties rather than spend $5,000 or more per house to comply with local standards. Such a decision would only exacerbate an already alarming shortage of affordable housing.

Everyone agrees that lead-paint poisoning is a national tragedy. But the reality is that it comes down to dollars and cents. By creating a trust fund to finance lead abatement, the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Prevention Act makes it possible to prevent lead poisoning before it takes its tragic toll.

Benjamin L. Cardin represents Maryland's 3rd District in Congress.

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