By Kelley Weiss, CHCF Center for Health Reporting
Children’s advocates are hoping for a big Christmas present this year – a billion dollars to remove toxic lead paint from homes. A Santa Clara Superior Court judge has until the end of the year to decide if paint companies should pay to get rid of lead paint still in thousands of older homes around the state.
While California’s lead poisoning cases have declined, especially over the last two decades, children's advocates say the most vulnerable children are still at risk because they don’t have enough money to reach the finish line.
Two counties are trying to fix the problem with the resources they have.
Alameda County is one of the ten counties and cities involved in the lawsuit.
Two years ago Nathaniel Stone was living in an East Oakland apartment with one-year-old Antonio. Stone is Antonio's legal guardian and is in the process of adopting him. The home they lived in had a lot of peeling paint.
One day when Stone was cooking in the kitchen from across the room he saw that Antonio seemed to be eating something. Stone checked it out and found Antonio with paint chips in his mouth.
Stone had no idea the peeling paint was lead-based -- or that it's not so surprising that small children like to eat it. Lead paint tastes sweet. Soon, Stone noticed a change in Antonio's behavior.
“From there he was kind of a little sick and restless, sleeping bad at night and kind of crying and a mood that normally wasn’t him,” Stone says.
So Stone took Antonio to the doctor and discovered that Antonio had a high level of lead in his blood.
“From that he ended up with loss of hearing in his ear,” Stone says.
Immediately Alameda County stepped in to help Stone find a new place to live. Today they live in an apartment that is free of lead paint. But because of that early exposure to lead, Antonio, now three-years-old, has major hearing loss. He goes to a center for children with disabilities.
Stone says Antonio has a speech therapist, because his words are "slow and twisted."
It takes a variety of county experts to handle a case like Antonio’s. This is easier for Alameda County because as part of its lead poisoning prevention program, the public health, environmental health and housing departments are integrated. The county program also has more resources than most.
Property owners of houses built before 1978 pay the county a $10 annual fee to respond to lead hazards. It’s one of the only assessments of its kind in California. With stable funding, the County tries to be more proactive.
Peter Belanger is a state certified lead project designer with the Alameda County Healthy Homes Department.
To get a better understanding of the issues he drove me around West Oakland – an area with industrial factories, art studios and he says, “a lot of older homes.”
In Oakland, 90 percent of houses have lead paint. Belanger says it’s not cheap to remove with an average cost of $5,000 per unit.
If the lead can’t be removed he’ll help move the family out, as happened in Antonio’s case. But whatever the approach, Belanger says the key is getting the children away from the toxic lead.
But for many families in California that level of support isn't available.
Los Angeles County is also a plaintiff in the lead paint trial. But unlike in Alameda, in LA County, it can take six months to resolve a case like Antonio’s.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, points to three main reasons for this lag.
The first: the sheer size of the county and the problem.
“We have roughly one and a half million residences that have lead paint,” he says.
Second, unlike Alameda County, LA’s Public Health and Housing Departments are not integrated. Fielding says that lack of integration can delay action.
And, the third reason: money. LA County doesn’t have a dedicated property tax like Alameda County. It relies mainly on state funding and that amount has varied over the years. In addition, the county took a hit last year when Congress cut almost all of its funding for the Centers for Disease Control’s lead program. That money goes out to county health departments for outreach and education.
Fielding says this resulted in LA County’s lead program losing about $600,000 a year.
At the same time the CDC reported that even lower levels of lead can cause permanent brain damage than had previously been known. Yet Fielding says there’s less and less funding to protect children from lead exposure.
“It is really catastrophic to see literally tens of thousands of kids having a level of poisoning that’s going to affect their ability to succeed in high school or to succeed in college,” he says.