John Oliver Tackles Deleading Funding in “Last Week Tonight”

On April 17 comedy news anchor John Oliver addressed the critical lack of funding for lead hazard abatement.

Federal Funding for the entire Healty Homes program has been declining, and is only $100 million per year. Lead hazard abatement in low-income houses would cost $230 million per year over ten years. Full cleanup across the socioeconomic spectrum was estimated at $166 billion over ten years.

Massachusetts Lead Funding Comes up Short

Landlords in Massachusetts won’t be surprised by the high cost of deleading. The Massachusetts Lead Paint Tax Credit (Schedule LP) offers up to $1,500 per unit. This credit is only a fraction of what would be needed to delead a unit today. For some landlords, the “rule of thumb” for a 19th century three-decker is $10,000 per unit. It’s not at all uncommon to get deleading quotes for five figures.

The cost of deleading an apartment depends on the methods used. Full removal is most desirable but most expensive.

Lead has no Biological Function

The John Oliver story comes on the heels of the Flint Michigan debacle, in which 200 children were poisoned by their municipal water supply. Oliver does a good job of highlighting the dangers of both old pipes and lead dust.

The CDC states that no safe level of blood lead in children has been identified. It is believed that there is no medical or biological function for lead in the body; it’s purely toxic.

Some of Massachusetts Water Supply in Question

Boston.com recently reported that 200,000 MA residents are living in municipalities where their water supply has once tested over the “safe limit”. Worcester, Springfield, and Boston have not tested over the limit in the last three years. Whether the limit being tracked is a compromise position aimed at protecting children, or the “safe limit” for adults, is unclear.

The communities that were over the limit were somewhat in the territory of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. Malden, Winthrop, Chelsea, Marlborough and New Bedford have all exceeded allowable limits at least once in the last three years.

The problem with water is often lead solder and lead pipes used outside of the municipal systems. Municipalities can use anti-corrosives to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water.

Let’s not Blame the Landlords

Massachusetts badly needs to reevaluate its lead abatement laws. The laws create a Catch-22 where tenants with children under 6 cannot live in an apartment with lead hazards, but landlords cannot refuse to rent to them. Landlords must delead. The tax credits available are inadequate for most deleading jobs.

Very few landlords operating today are responsible for the lead paint in their buildings. And probably none are responsible for breaking the 1978 law that prohibited the use of lead paint. This is our problem as a society, we need to fix it together.

In Massachusetts, landlords are strictly liable for lead-related medical issues if they haven’t deleaded. Any child with elevated blood lead levels can turn to their landlord for the rest of their medical expenses for life. But there are other sources of lead, including daycares, water pipes, aviation exhaust, and contaminated soil. Why are landlords shouldering the entirety of this heavy burden?

Massachusetts needs a modern approach to the continuing problem of lead.

Read more about Massachusetts Lead Law.

Click the image above or click here to watch John Oliver’s segment.

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