BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When Sarah Hess’ daughter Josie was just a year old, a routine doctor visit unearthed disturbing news: Josie’s blood work showed at least 8.8 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in her system, a level just below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for lead poisoning.
Additional testing disclosed Josie’s contamination with lead was actually higher, at 12 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. In 2010, when Josie was first tested, the CDC was recommending children with levels greater than 10 seek immediate medical attention. Earlier this month and after more study, the CDC cut the alarm level to 5 micrograms.
In New Orleans, where the Hesses lived, lead has been considered a hazard for years. An often-cited source is the dust created when the city’s old housing stock is sanded for painting. After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, there were fears the flooding of the city would carry lead duty into homes, schools and businesses.
In the Louisiana Legislature, three bills that take aim at lead contamination in playgrounds, day care centers and schools statewide are nearing final passage. All three, backed by the Senate, are pending in the House.
The measures would require that new day cares, preschools and certain elementary school facilities around Louisiana be inspected for possible lead contamination. The results of the inspections would be posted online for public viewing. In addition, agencies engaging in lead reduction would be required to publish online federal standards for allowable lead contamination.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, sponsor of the bills, said he hopes they will be a launch point for tackling the city’s high levels of lead. He said requiring facilities with lead hazards to remediate would make the bills too expensive to get through the Legislature, but he’s hoping that making the lead hazards public will raise awareness about the issue.
“At the very least this was the most cost effective, politically viable way to at least start to address the problem,” said Morrell, D-New Orleans.
After Josie’s tests, Sarah Hess took the child to stay with her mother while their house was scoured of lead dust. While there, she and Josie frequented Mickey Markey Park, a playground in the Bywater neighborhood, where most of the wood houses were built more than a century ago. Alarmingly, Hess said a blood test a few months later showed the child’s lead contamination levels had almost doubled.
Tests showed there was too much lead in the dirt and the park has since been closed. The city hired a contractor to put down a geotextile fabric and then six inches of clean soil. Some areas will be planted with grass to hold in the dirt.
“We didn’t realize at the time that the playground was contaminated with lead-positive soil,” Hess said.
A study done after Katrina and completed in 2011 by Tulane University found 61 percent of homes in random testing exceeded federal standards for lead. Felecia Rabito, associate professor of epidemiology and lead author of the study, said the contamination is primarily due to the age of the housing.
“It’s a very old city and so much of it was painted well before the ban of lead-based paint,” Rabito said. “There’s a lot of renovation that has occurred in the city which released lead into the environment, so it’s an ongoing exposure source primarily for children.”
The study looked at houses citywide, she said, and lead contamination wasn’t limited to high-risk housing in low-income neighborhoods.
“It’s an element, so it doesn’t go away. It doesn’t degrade. It’s a very current problem, regardless of race or income,” she said.
Lead poisoning can damage the brain, cause behavior and learning problems and stunt growth of children.
Nabil Baddour, who founded the advocacy group NOLA Unleaded, said agreed the city is lead problem is based in its old housing.
“The common misconception with lead poisoning is that children get this when they eat paint chips off a wall. That’s not recognized as a primary route of lead exposure. The primary route is dust. When you’re dry sanding a home, the paint is pulverized into a dust and carried by the wind and contaminates the soil,” he said.
In 2001, the City Council passed an ordinance banning dry sanding in buildings with lead paint or built before 1978. But Baddour said contractors have largely disregarded the rules. Because they aren’t routinely enforced, there is little incentive to comply, Baddour said.
“Doing this properly costs a lot of money. To do the job right, your estimate is going to go higher,” Baddour said
Hess said she paid $30,000 to have her home scrubbed of lead.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have the resources to do that,” she said. “Most people would have had to move.”
Morrell said he hopes passage of his bills will convince his fellow lawmakers they must take more action on lead contamination.
“Honestly, I really believe, if I could prove to my colleagues, prove to the administration, prove to the state that this is not a ridiculous effort, that it can be done in a cost-effective manner, it will probably give me the ability to come back the next year, two, three four years, come back with a general overhaul that has a retroactive component,” he said.
Senate Bills 200, 201 and 211 can be found at www.legis.la.gov