There are more children poisoned by lead in Philly than the infamous Michigan city – but, is the city doing much about it?
Poverty, violent crime and trigger-happy cops aren’t the only dangers Black Philadelphia should worry about. There is a hidden danger that’s just as pernicious and just as deadly: lead.
While the city government pats itself on the back for some small steps to address the issue, more than 2,700 children per year find themselves exposed to the dangerous chemical element – that we know of, according to the Lead Free Philly Coalition. That’s more than 7 reported cases a day.
That’s nothing the city should be proud of, either.
So: Is Philadelphia’s lead problem larger than Flint’s? It is, apparently – along with 17 other cities throughout old infrastructure-saddled Pennsylvania.
It just didn’t get the hashtag and national media campaign. And if that’s the case, is Philly doing enough to keep it from spreading?
NOT NEARLY ENOUGH
In August, the Lead Free Philly Coalition, comprised of numerous health organizations, clinicians, housing advocates and families affected by lead, challenged city officials on their response. Child advocacy organization Public Citizens for Public and Youth (PCCY) has pushed this message for the past seven years, harassing City Hall to address persistent lead issues.
They’re not satisfied. “It’s been over a year since the Mayor received key recommendations from his Advisory Group that included revisiting the existing legislation that doesn’t adequately protect kids,” steamed Colleen McCauley, PCCY’s Health Policy Director, in a statement.. “Meanwhile, every day, children are being poisoned by toxic lead paint in their own homes. Those kids need us to take action today.”
City Council is not off the hook either. They never heeded the suggestions of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s advisory group on lead poisoning first established in 2017. Nor did the city’s Lead Paint Disclosure Law reach far enough since it only required landlords renting to families with children under the age of six to bring those units up to lead-safe or lead-free code. If the Lead Free Philly Coalition’s findings are accurate, the hope is to have all city buildings erected before the 1978 lead paint ban brought up to code.
ecoWURD spoke briefly with McCauley. She, too, realizes that it’s not easy. There are multiple challenges when informing the public at large, despite incremental moves to put it front and center.
The city can make the argument that it has made strides over the past seven years to make lead prevention a priority agenda. But imagine those who have limited access to that information through Internet, smartphone or tablet. At a near 30 percent poverty rate (50 percent of that Black), your average Black Philly household won’t be up to speed anytime soon on topics like home lead remediation.
But McCauley believes that lead prevention and elimination should be the true goal. That process should be in motion long before residents start building families.
“The process of prevention starts when you start having kids. They’re the most vulnerable and at risk. But that’s not how our system is set up right now,” McCauley argued. “We need to test properties and homes, but what we actually focus on is testing kids first. By then, it’s too late. The awareness has to be raised as we’re considering adding to our families and using what tools are available through groups like Lead Free Philly.”
BRING BACK “LEAD SAFE BABIES”
McCauley points to the city’s now defunct federally-funded program called “Lead Safe Babies” which was first enacted in 2001. But as numbers dropped nationwide, along with harm reduction protocols in place over the past decade, so did those Uncle Sam greenbacks. That left the city and its residents without measures and tools to tackle the mounting concerns. As listed in PCCY’s 2007 second “Keeping The Lead Out” report, the Lead Safe Babies program pre-dated the organization’s current efforts.
Lead Awareness: North Philly Style was before all of that, a model four-year project kicked off in the late 1990s. A community-driven strategy comprised of several resident activists and grassroots organizations, the success of the program was marked by a study introduced in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002. Groups involved consisted of the Philadelphia Housing Authority Tenant Councils for Norris Homes and Apartments, Fairhill Apartments, the Village of the Arts and Humanities, the Philadelphia Parent Child Center, the Neighborhood Action Bureau, and the Salvation Army.
Several experimental and control census tracts were chosen based on the number of homes in Philadelphia built before 1950, the percentage of those residents living below poverty, and which among those residents were African American. Those tracts covered 200 city blocks and discovered that the average rate of those below the poverty line was 51 percent with an income of about $11,000.
Across those blocks, 89 percent were African American with a home value between $15,000 to just over $35,000.
With North Philadelphia identified as one of the poorest city sections in the state, lead poisoning and exposure there was up to 2.5 times more likely than anywhere else in Philadelphia.
What Lead Awareness: North Philly Style achieved was enough urgency to gain support from the Environmental Protection Agency, thereby prompting service projects at Temple Health Connection and other academic nursing centers in the region. That included Lead Safe Babies, Asthma Safe Kids, and the RADICAL (Real Actions Directed to Improving Children’s Health and Lifestyle) program at Temple Health Connection with then-EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman in 2001 (yes: Philly’s lead problem was so bad that even the Bush administration at the time recognized it as a priority).
At least in North Philly, according to the AJPH study, the community-led prevention and intervention strategy targeted those children in the census tracts. That led to more testing, decreased exposure to lead, and lowered numbers in blood lead levels in comparison to other children in the city.
Back when the Lead Safe Babies project was in effect, it partnered with home visiting programs that put lead and its dangers on the radars of new parents. The purpose was to help lay out a safe foundation for children. When the money ran out, however, so did testing for property hazards and, soon, lead issues weren’t being resolved.
Then Flint happened.
So now, there are new federal monies available and local lawmakers are chasing the cash so that remediation, reduction, prevention and elimination is the key.
ecoWURD asked McCauley what does this mean for Black Philly.
“The main resource is still the Philadelphia Department of Health,” said McCauley. “They will help residents who own their homes in finding folks who can come test their water, soil, and residence for lead but that will come at a cost. For renters, they have some protections under the Lead Disclosure Act , but it’s still not enough. It’s a start. But it’s still beset with loopholes.
“Bottom line, the resources are out there, but it’s a lot to dig through and at Lead Free Philly, we’re trying to keep on top of it all,” McCauley added. PCCY and the coalition hope to influence policy by expanding the reach and effectiveness of the Lead Disclosure Act, just as it did in 2011.
FAILING GRADES, THWARTED POLICY FIXES
Not surprisingly, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, an organization with aims to protect Pennsylvania’s air, water and open spaces, gave the city an “F” in a 2017 analysis of how the state tests for lead in its schools. In PennEnvironment’s findings, 40 schools in Philadelphia were tested for lead and 14 percent of those schools had levels exceeding the EPA’s 15ppb limit pursuant to the agency’s Lead Copper Rule. As PennEnvironment noted, no matter how minuscule, any exposure to lead is dangerous to brain and body development.
That alarm made its way to the desk of State Sen. Art Haywood, a Democrat representing the Commonwealth’s 4th Senatorial District. In a July statement, Haywood referenced a 2014 Pennsylvania Department of Health study that revealed 18 communities in the state have children who show signs of exposure to elevated levels of lead.
Haywood had already introduced Senate Bill 647 ,which proposed amending the Public School Code of 1949 that requires any facilities housing school children get their water tested – or, at least, be transparent about lingering lead concerns. In essence, Haywood’s suggestions to the standing law would increase the need for absolute testing of all school buildings and grounds while also pushing for charter school testing, which did not fall under the 1949 law.
In Haywood’s bill, testing was mandatory. But lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate resisted the hard ultimatum, citing cost and local management concerns.
Sen. Haywood isn’t alone in that lead-testing fight. State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat who represents the 7th Senatorial District, has long been a vocal advocate for environmental equity. Since entering the state legislature he’s introduced a number of bills directly connected to city schools and the lead problem, including detailed 2016 plans for a “Lead SuperFund” that would tackle the dangers statewide. And this past June, Hughes was joined by Gov. Tom Wolf and other lawmakers to announce a $15.6 million emergency and cleanup repair plan for lead and mold in Philadelphia schools.
According to Gov. Wolf’s statement, $7.6 million of the total sum will go towards lead paint remediation at 40 city schools, and the school district will take $8 million to remove lead paint, mold, and asbestos that, overall, will cover 57 city schools.
The emergency funds might seem like a positive boost – and they are, optically. But, as joint investigative “Toxic City” series from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News points out, they fall woefully short of the $5 billion over 10 years district officials say they need to fully address lead remediation and other issues such as new heating systems, roof replacements and other major repairs. District officials had not yet responded to ecoWURD’s requests for comment and more information on funding by the time this story was filed.
A VERY BLACK PROBLEM
So why should Black Philadelphia care?
Roughly half of all children in Philadelphia between the ages of birth to 9 are Black. And most of them live in areas where lead is a quiet constant.
Plus, the warning signs of lead poisoning in Philly’s children are there, especially when you align them with authoritative findings and recommendations from the Mayo Clinic. Developmental delay, learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness and fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation,hearing loss, seizures and eating things such as paint chips that aren’t food.
Financially distressed Black families without sound, easy access to resources could easily brush these indicators aside as just part of a child’s normal development. But as they age, could these conditions worsen and further impact their quality of life? Black children face a number of potential barriers in major American cities. Combined with the assault on their bodies by way of the environment, could this signal a more insidious form of injustice? This map from PlanPhilly illustrates how severe that problem might be …
Neighborhoods in North Philly, Point Breeze to the south of the city, Southwest, and West Philly — all predominantly Black communities — have older homes and buildings that contain lead-fused or lead-tainted piping that could expose kids to lead via water. These same homes pose the same problem by lead paint chips, dust, and contaminated soil.
Another PlanPhilly map shows how bad that old home problem is and the neighborhoods where it is most prominent. Again, these homes are clustered in predominantly Black communities.
The City Council did approve a $4.7 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2019 in June, with additional monies going to schools by way of proposed tax hikes. But it isn’t clear what part of this money goes towards environmental safety for schools. Shortly after that budget passed, Councilman Mark Squilla did propose new lead-removal standards for schools through a school district-wide ordinance. But, again, no word on additional monies for said lead removal.
Philadelphia has a larger lead problem than Flint’s and, as a city government teamed with state officials, it might be more aware of it than most. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s been effective at the need to remediate, contain and eliminate the issue. As ecoWURD finds, it’s a real struggle for Philly residents to obtain the resources, assistance and basic information needed to tackle lead. Case in point: The city’s “Lead-Free Kids” report is a dry breakdown of how citizens can assist with lead poison prevention – but, it’s not a plan on how government officials will help the public do just that. The Philadelphia Department of Health’s Lead Poisoning topic page is more of the same: a bland approach to a situation so much more than that. Meanwhile, that’s not bringing Philly any closer to keeping so many kids from getting poisoned. It’s a crisis that becomes more dire by the day.
And, like everything else in Philly, navigating the data stream will have you lost on an island like Gilligan.
That said, the city and state are doing this better than Michigan. At least they are taking careful measures to address the lead problem, and that should offer some hope for the city’s poorer Black residents.
But, as ecoWURD finds, getting resources, assistance and basic information is an arduous task. Case in point: The city’s “Lead-Free Kids” report is a dry breakdown of how citizens can assist with lead poison prevention. Yet, what’s needed – and not there – is a plan on how government officials will help the public do just that. In addition, the Philadelphia Department of Health’s Lead Poisoning topic page is more of the same: a bland approach to a situation so much more than that. Meanwhile, Philly’s lead crisis becomes more dire by the day.