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Health, Science, Environment

Federal inspectors cracking down on lead paint violations in St. Louis

Before it was banned in 1978, lead paint was commonly used in homes. In St. Louis, which is dominated by older housing stock, lead contamination is still prevalent.
Abby Lanes | Flickr
Before it was banned in 1978, lead paint was commonly used in homes. In St. Louis City, which is dominated by older housing stock, lead contamination is still prevalent.

Inspectors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are in St. Louis for the next few months, making sure that contractors are following federal lead paint laws. Businesses with employees that do renovation, repair or painting work must ensure they are federally trained and certified. If they're not, companies could be fined up to $37,500 a day for each violation.

The EPA’s regional lead coordinator, Crystal McIntyre, said the amount of the fine depends on the nature of the violation. “For example, if there are children in the property at the time of the violations, then that could cause the penalty to go higher because you're putting those small children at risk,” McIntyre said. “If the property is vacant, then the penalty is likely lower.”

Although homeowners doing their own renovations are not subject to federal lead paint laws, the EPA recommends that do-it-yourselfers follow federal safety requirements.
Credit Cade Martin | CDC
Although homeowners doing their own renovations are not subject to federal lead paint laws, the EPA recommends that do-it-yourselfers follow federal safety requirements.

Children who are exposed to lead can develop learning disabilities, behavioral problems or hearing loss. Pregnant women are also at risk, since lead can pass through the placenta and harm the developing fetus.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead exposure, and its health effects are irreversible.

McIntyre said home renovations — and even the routine opening and closing of doors and windows — can turn lead paint into inhalable dust.

“There’s a common misconception that children have to eat paint chips, or that all you have to do is tell them to stop eating paint chips, and they no longer will become lead-poisoned. Well, eating paint chips is not a common practice,” McIntyre said. “And so, what we’re seeing is that it’s mostly because of the inhalation of the dust.”

Homeowners doing their own renovations aren't subject to the federal requirements. But McIntyre recommends that they follow them for their own safety and that of other family members.

Rates of childhood lead poisoning have decreased dramatically in St. Louis over the past decade. But in a city with so many old houses, the problem hasn't gone away.

About 90 percent of the homes in St. Louis were built before 1978, which is the year when lead paint was first banned from residential use. More than 60 percent of the city's housing stock was built before 1950, when lead concentrations in paint were at their highest.

The EPA will be focusing its inspection efforts in St. Louis on low-income neighborhoods with old housing. The zip codes are shown on the map, below:

(We have been alerted to a technical problem that causes graphics to disappear on some browsers. If you do not see the map, follow the link.)

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Map credit Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio

More than a decade ago, the city began an initiative to reduce the number of children poisoned with lead, and those efforts have been paying off. In 2003, of the St. Louis children under age 6 who were tested, 48 percent had a blood lead level of at least 5 μg/dL — the level that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers too high. By 2013, that number had dropped to 11 percent.

To be able to attend child care or school in St. Louis, children under the age of 6 are required by state law to be tested for lead each year. The city health department provides free testing at its clinic. City residents can also have their homes tested for lead at no cost, and get help paying for lead remediation.

For science, environment and health news, follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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