Unleaded Truth: Nevada and Lead Paint Contamination

lead paint One of the side discussions revolving around the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore concerns lead paint contamination and the hazards it poses for children and adults.  Articles have recently appeared in Salon, and the Chicago Tribune, recently, and in Atlantic in April 2013.  The articles, especially the last one, offer a brief history of the eventual banning of lead paint, and how industry lobbying prevented a ban until 1978.   If it’s banned throughout the country, including Nevada of course, why is it of concern to us now?

Lead paint is still out there.  It might be covered by subsequent layers of paint, or it might have been partially removed but remains under a layer of newer paint, or in the worse instance – the home, room, or apartment hasn’t been painted since ‘78.  In each of these instances it remains extremely harmful.  Popular writing tends to speak of children getting paint flakes or chips in their mouths – toddlers being apt to taste everything in their surroundings – however, lost in some commentary is the fact that the paint turns to dust which is ingested involuntarily – by everyone in the house.

Nor should we forget that the CDC didn’t get involved in lead paint removal and abatement until it was authorized to do so by the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988.  In addition to including lead in the Safe Drinking Water authority in the EPA, the Lead Contamination Control Act:

“Amends the Public Health Service Act to authorize the Secretary of Health and Human Services to make grants to State and local governments for the initiation and expansion of community programs designed to: (1) screen infants and children for elevated blood lead levels; (2) assure referral for treatment of, and environmental intervention for, infants and children with such blood lead levels; and (3) provide education about childhood lead poisoning. Requires that grant priority be given to programs which will serve areas with a high incidence of elevated blood levels in infants and children. Directs the Secretary to report annually to the Congress on the effectiveness of such programs. Authorizes appropriations for such grant program through FY 1991.”

The CDC has made this a continuing concern, including the abatement of lead paint contamination as part of its Healthy People 2020 program.  From a more critical perspective – this means the CDC hopes we can eliminate lead paint contamination in another five years, although we’ve known it to be a health hazard since the early 20th century.  The program targeting lead poisoning in children is thwarted to some extent because not all states are participating.  When we look at the State Surveillance reports there’s an uncomfortable footnote to the data:

Note: The following states do not submit lead surveillance data to CDC: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming

We can’t mitigate what we don’t investigate.  If we aren’t reporting levels of lead contaminants among children, how about the adults? Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology Surveillance program (ABLES) is NOT among the programs in which the state of Nevada participated.

ables Again, we cannot fully mitigate what we don’t investigate, and we cannot eliminate what we don’t survey and report.

Worse still, the federal  budget axe has fallen on lead contamination programs.  The “Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program” was zeroed out in the FY 2015 and 2016 budgets. [ASTHO]  Other analyses of the budget show a $29 million authorization for lead threat removal in 2011 dropping to a $15 million program by 2015. [GHH]  We were in trouble in this department as of 2012:

“The funding for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) for its lead poisoning and prevention programs (combined with asthma control in the “Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program) was cut from $29 million to $2 million for the 2013 fiscal year. What that means, says Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, is that “the programs that states run to prevent lead poisoning and to respond to children with elevated blood levels will be eliminated.” [Parenting]

The national and state track record is pretty dismal. We didn’t get around to banning the incorporation of lead in household interior paints until 1978, then we didn’t authorize CDC surveillance and reporting until ten years later. Nor during this time have we fully funded programs to remove the health hazard from American homes.

Lead and lead paint contamination is not uniformly investigated or mitigated in Nevada.  Given the inadequate attention and funding for national risk abatement programs for lead poisoning, it’s easy to see why Nevada didn’t fully devise and promote lead risk surveillance and removal programs.

The relevant statutes concerning lead contamination are NRS 439.479 and NRS 439.490. And, herein we find a ‘permissive language’ problem:

NRS 439.479  Regulations; enforcement; notice to district board of health of failure to maintain rental dwelling unit in habitable condition. 1.  In addition to any other powers, duties and authority conferred on a district board of health, the district board of health may by affirmative vote of a majority of all the members of the board adopt regulations consistent with law, which must take effect immediately on their approval by the State Board of Health, to (a) Regulate any health hazard on residential property;(b) Regulate any health hazard in a rental dwelling unit; an  (c) Regulate any health hazard on commercial property. (emphasis added)

In other words, a district board of health MAY adopt regulations on lead contamination and removal.  The first part of the problem is obvious when we look up the “district boards of health” in Nevada – there are only three of them .  District boards exist in Clark County, Washoe County, and Carson City.  Thus, the three local jurisdictions may enact regulations on lead contamination – and it’s to their credit they’ve all addressed the issue – but are not required to do so; and, that leaves “the rurals” without any systematic way to approach the problem at all under the terms of NRS 439.479.  Additionally, it’s of note that the “health hazard” provisions weren’t enacted until 2009.

Residents in rural counties might avail themselves of the State Health Division’s “Healthy Homes” guidelines, and hope for the best if they have to file a complaint with a landlord or seller.  Citizens are directed to two resources, the Rural Nevada Development Corporation and the Nevada Rural Housing Authority. In short, the state provides three pages of advice, two telephone numbers, and its best wishes for a happy resolution.

The good news is that Nevada is a predominantly urban state with 94.2% of the total population living in two metropolitan areas both of which have lead contamination regulations in place; however, that does leave 156,764 people or 5.8% of the population at greater risk.  The bad news is that the state may be expected to “cover” the remaining 109,013.8 square miles of territory containing that 5.8% rural population.  While there are counties which could not be reasonably expected to maintain a full service Health Board, like Esmeralda (926) or Eureka (1,903) others like Lyon (53,344), Elko (53,358), Douglas (48,553) and Nye (45,456) might be capable of forming a serviceable health district board.

Again, the permissive language issue comes to the fore – while some of the larger rural counties could organize a local health district, nothing in NRS 439.479 requires that the board address contamination standards and removal regulations for such things as lead.

111 years after France and Belgium forbid the use of lead paint for interior use, and 37 years after the Consumer Products Safety Commission  banned the use of lead in interior paint, and 27 years after the CDC was authorized to track and report on lead poisoning … the state of Nevada remains in a state of flux concerning the regulation, removal, and restoration of homes in which lead paint still poses a significant health hazard.

References of Interest:

CDC Lead Poisoning from A to Z, CDC  (pdf); Washoe County Health Department, EPI Bulletin April 2009 Lead Exposure in Northern Nevada (pdf); Nevada Revised Statutes NRS 439; Atlantic Magazine, “Why it took decades of blaming parents before we banned lead paint,” April 2013; CDC Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance Tables ABLES.  The Lead Contamination Control Act 1988. Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention, Southern Nevada Health District.

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