CH has a chance to lead on lead safety
Cleveland Heights’ best feature may be its great variety of century-old homes; yet these charming beauties harbor a threat to the lifelong health of our children. Lead-based paint was not banned in the United States until 1978. Houses built earlier unquestionably contain lead.
Eradicating all traces of lead-based paint from an old house is exorbitantly expensive, requiring replacement of windows, doors, walls and soil, and installation of new exterior siding. Increasingly, U.S. cities are requiring more practical measures, called “interim controls.” If applied correctly, these methods can significantly reduce lead in and around a home. They consist of keeping the original pre-1978 paint contained, or “encapsulated” by new paint, and covering bare soil with grass, ground covers or mulch. The resulting environment is not lead-free, but, if properly maintained, is much safer. (“Lead-safe” is the technical term.)
Even when lead paint is successfully encapsulated, friction from opening and closing pre-1978 windows and doors inevitably produces fine lead dust, which young children ingest when putting their hands in their mouths. Once poisoned, a child suffers lifelong cognitive, behavioral and physical health consequences.
Making a home safer for children younger than 6 is a two-part process. Even with interim controls in place, parents or other caregivers must minimize dust by frequently cleaning floors, windowsills and other surfaces, and by washing children’s hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys.
Throughout much of the U.S., lead hazards are identified only after a child is diagnosed as poisoned. In other words, the vulnerable bodies of young children comprise our lead-detection system. However, in recent decades, one-by-one, cities have begun to institute preventive programs, and some have reduced lead poisoning dramatically.
To launch and operate a successful lead-safe program, a city’s building, housing and communications departments must be fully staffed and competently led. Inspectors must be thoroughly trained, professionally licensed, conscientious, and scrupulously honest. Frankly, this is a heavy lift for many cities.
In 2019, Cleveland City Council, responding to pressure from Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH) and other groups, enacted an ordinance to tackle the problem of lead in older rental homes.
Last year, then-Cleveland Heights council member (now mayor) Kahlil Seren drafted legislation closely modeled on Cleveland’s. If adopted, Ordinance 78-2021 would make Cleveland Heights the first Northeast Ohio suburb with an ambitious plan to reduce child lead poisoning. Various sources of funding are available to cushion financial consequences for landlords only after lead-safe legislation is enacted.
Council is now considering 78-2021, which would apply to rental homes, schools and childcare facilities. As in Cleveland, a rental unit in Cleveland Heights would have to be certified lead-safe by a state-licensed technician before the city could issue an occupancy certificate.
Why limit the focus to rentals? They generally turn over much more often than owner-occupied homes; therefore, each rental unit potentially affects many more children.
We are excited about this move to protect our city’s youngest residents, and support passage of 78-2021—with some crucial amendments. We urge council not to pass it without at least these changes and additions:
- Close every possible loophole, so unscrupulous landlords cannot avoid requirements.
- Require all repair, renovation and painting (RRP in technical jargon), not just lead remediation, to be performed according to lead-safe standards.
- Consider adding exterior painting to the list of renovations requiring permits.
- The ordinance assumes work will be done by paid contractors, but many small landlords do their own repairs, sometimes with the help of family or friends. Make the law work for them.
- Build in an education component. Require a multi-pronged communications campaign, so that all parents of young children living in pre-1978 housing, whether owners or renters, are made aware of the importance of regular practices to remove lead dust. Lead-safe training for do-it-yourself owners should be available, perhaps through the Home Repair Resource Center.
- The ordinance creates a Lead-Safe Advisory Board. Require board meetings to be publicly announced and open to the public, to adhere to all other provisions of the Open Records Law.
If Cleveland Heights is to realize the laudable intentions behind 78-2021, certain conditions at city hall and in the city must change. Rental units lacking occupancy certificates must be identified and the owners rigorously pursued. Dealing with increasing numbers of out-of-town landlords will require close coordination between inspectors and the city’s housing court.
Most importantly, the administration must bring the building department back in-house, fully staff inspectional services, and hire highly capable leaders to run these vital programs. If Mayor Seren can meet these goals, his lead-safe initiative will have a chance to succeed.
Our thanks to Spencer Wells and Stu Greenberg for helping us to understand lead-safe policy, terminology and other issues addressed in this column.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at email@example.com.