Require housing rentals to be free of toxic lead paint

The lead poisoning crisis isn’t just limited to Flint, Michigan. It’s a scourge across the country, causing irreparable brain damage to generations of kids directly or through their mothers’ exposure.

Congress took a major step forward when in 1978 it banned new sales of lead-containing paint—which according to the CDC is the primary source of lead for children. (As the Flint situation made obvious, corroded pipes carrying tainted water are another serious source of lead.) Despite the paint ban, however, the toxic material is still commonly found in old housing stock painted decades ago.

One idea to accelerate the clean up is to impose stronger requirements on landlords and housing property owners to ensure that their rentals are free of lead hazards.

A version of the policy is in place in Rhode Island, which has long grappled with lead poisoning. As Vox explained:

“The first required all landlords in the state to obtain “lead-safe certificates” in order to rent their properties. Rhode Island provided landlords with information and training on how to reduce lead hazards in the home. While few resources were dedicated to enforcement, from 1997 to 2010 the total number of lead-safe certificates issued to landlords increased from 333 to more than 41,000.

The second required owners of any building in which a child had tested positive for elevated blood lead to mitigate lead hazards in the child’s home or face prosecution by the state attorney general.”

Other states and localities that lack strong landlord policies should consider following suit, albeit with more effective enforcement than Rhode Island, and Congress should pass comprehensive, national policy changes as well.

That debate no doubt raises a longstanding barrier: the high costs and heated disputes over who should bear the burden—paint manufacturers, landlords, property owners, tenants, or the government? Lawsuits against the paint industry, mostly unsuccessful so far, and state legislative proposals to facilitate such litigation are still on the table today. Furthermore, reformists would need to watch out for the usual challenge of compliance and unintended consequences, such as landlord rules leading them to avoid liability by subtly discriminating against potential tenants who’ve already been exposed.

What’s clear is that eliminating lead exposure will take more than the slow and piecemeal policies enacted by the federal, state, and local governments so far. To the extent that data is even reported by the states—a loophole federal policymakers should close—we also know that the worst impacts are felt in the impoverished and marginalized communities least able to overcome it. Given the broader implications, such as the strong link between lead exposure and crime, the resulting harms affect us all. It’s past time that we made lead mitigation a serious national priority.