Society Suffers Cost Of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning costs society up to $45,000 per building for each decade that building codes are not strictly enforced, according to a study issued by the Harvard School of Public Health earlier this month.

Mary Jean Brown, the author of the study and an assistant professor of maternal and child health, said the costs arise from medical care, special education and the loss in productivity—stemming from a drop in IQ—which are associated with prolonged exposure to lead paint.

Brown said she looked at 137 buildings in two cities with different housing codes—one in Rhode Island and one in Massachusetts.

All of the buildings in the study initially had lead, but the buildings in the Massachusetts city, which has stricter regulations against lead paint, were renovated to remove the substance.

Children living in these houses had a 38 percent chance of having elevated lead levels in the blood after five years, while those living in untreated homes had a 73 percent chance. Brown said the reduced risk of lead poisoning translated to reductions in societal costs.

“Strict enforcement prevented more [lead poisoning] cases and led to $45,000 in savings,” Brown said.

She added that the study may aid plaintiffs waging legal battles against lead paint manufacturers, mentioning one case in Rhode Island that recently resulted in a hung jury.

Brown also said she hopes the study will raise awareness about lead poisoning, which she called a societal and not a private problem.

“Maybe there is some societal responsibility for funding this,” she said.

Cambridge is already doing its part to curb lead poisoning, according to Sam T. Lipson, director of Cambridge’s environmental health unit. He cited the Lead-Free Cambridge program as instrumental in the city’s fight against lead paint.

“They provide a very large financial grant to building owners who have rental units who are concerned with abating lead,” he said.

According to Toni L. Snow, program manager of Lead-Free Cambridge, the Housing and Urban Development-funded program gives out forgivable five-year loans of up to $10,000 to owners whose income levels qualify them for the loans.

Not everyone agrees with the results of the study. Lenore M. Schloming ’59, president of the Cambridge-based Small Property Owners of America, questioned whether lead paint has as great of an impact as the study claims.

Speaking of the kind of maladies found in the study, Schloming said, “I think lead paint is hardly responsible.”

Schloming said she agreed with Brown in one regard—that landlords should not be forced to foot the bill for lead abatement alone.

“If all this is true,” she said, “and it’s going to cost society all this money, society should help pay for lead paint removal.”