Summer is a time for taking things slowly. But the glacial pace taken by City Hall to ban dry sanding -- a technique that releases lead from old paint with widespread and horrific consequences -- is inexcusable.
Scientists have convincingly demonstrated that lead from old paint has tragic consequences for children, especially those under the age of six. Lowered IQs, an increase in learning disabilities and tendencies toward violent behavior have all been tied to lead exposure. These effects are irreversible. To a lesser extent, adults are susceptible to health problems such as high blood pressure, memory loss and, in men, impotence. Exposure to lead can kill pets.
Sanding a surface in a home or business that has any layer of lead-based paint releases billions of microscopic particles of non-biodegradable lead into the environment. Those lead particles can settle anywhere as potential, and invisible, contaminants. Lead was banned in paint in 1978, but with an estimated 40 percent of New Orleans' housing stock constructed before 1950, most local buildings contain lead-based paint. Old, peeling paint provides an even easier way for children to come into contact with lead. Factors such as these put New Orleans 13th among cities with the biggest threat of lead poisoning for children, according to the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing.
The city's lack of action on this problem does not arise from a lack of knowledge. In the early 1990s, Howard Mielke, an environmental toxicology professor at Xavier University, began lead paint research in conjunction with the state's Department of Health and Hospitals. Mielke documented an elevated level of lead in as much as 30 percent of children in some areas of the city. He has even presented findings that relate poor LEAP test scores to the children of the most lead-prone neighborhoods. In 1992, Mielke formed Lead Lab, an advocacy group that has worked diligently with the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs to stress the need for a ban on sanding.
Yet, for the past nine years, the city has taken little action. An occasional new study or personal tragedy might stir up sentiment, but when the dust settles, the sanding continues -- with continuing tragic results.
Just ask the Pavur family. In the spring of 1999, painters sanded their elegant 75-year-old Faubourg St. John home. Their dog, Hero, died of lead poisoning, and their three children were all treated for lead poisoning, a recovery process that still requires continued care by physicians.
The high-profile nature of the Pavur case led to the much-praised formation in February 2000 of a informal group working with Linda Calvert, director of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs. The group includes homebuilders, politicians, parents and activists, and it has made great steps toward community-wide education about lead poisoning. It proposed a ban on sanding, based on model laws already enacted in other older cities such as Boston, San Francisco and Baltimore.
The existing bans prove that technology and technique can evolve to alleviate the need for indiscriminate sanding. New encasement paints require no sanding preparation, and when they are applied, they effectively seal lead-based paint from the surface. Other proven, effective techniques include attaching a vacuum to the sander and confining the sanding job to a covered area.
Unfortunately, the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs is a policy office with no authority to create or enforce laws. The group's initial demand quickly shrank to a "recommendation."
Then another outcry occurred two months ago, in late April, when a study conducted by Tulane School of Public Health epidemiologist Felicia Rabito concluded that 25 percent of children tested in public health clinics carry toxic levels of lead in their blood. This finding demanded a response, and city officials were quick to oblige. City Attorney Mavis Early said an ordinance regulating sanding would be sent before City Council within a month. Council members Eddie Sapir and Oliver Thomas were among those who declared support for such a ban. Thomas personalized his statements with a story about his family dog that had died from lead poisoning.
But just a few weeks after Rabito's study was released, the rhetoric died down -- again.
The Office of Environmental Affairs' recommendation currently floats between City Attorney Early's office and City Council. Early is scheduled to make a presentation to the Council regarding an ordinance to regulate sanding at the Council's meeting this Thursday (June 21). Early concedes, however, that the issue is complex and it may take longer to draft a law that is enforceable and effective. "We are researching similar legislation in other cities with old, historic properties," Early said. "We want a law that will work."
We do, too. It's time New Orleans joined other cities in safeguarding children from lead poisoning. Let no more of our kids be lost in the dust.