Pursuing a lead-safe Rhode Island

By some estimates 30,000 of Rhode Island’s homes and apartments need more than $300 million in repairs to rid them of potentially toxic lead hazards, including chipping paint. It’s a big problem for almost 10 percent of the state’s 400,000-plus dwellings.

The estimate, by the way, doesn’t include the cost of treating children who are poisoned, or temporarily relocating a family during lead hazard abatement work. The numbers also only represent homes built before the 1950s, which have a higher risk of lead hazards.

Remedying the situation is a daunting task.

A Senate commission appointed the last day of the 1998 General Assembly session has been working for six months on changes, which could determine who pays for abatement projects and create stronger incentives for property owners to deal with lead hazards. The commission could offer up draft legislation this month, perhaps at its meeting Thursday (Feb. 11), according to Kenneth Payne, a Senate senior policy analyst, who has worked with the Senate Commission on Lead Hazards.

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Several commission participants interviewed for this story said they are hopeful about the potential for results, but they also acknowledged the challenge of incorporating a variety of viewpoints into an all-purpose bill. And it’s quite a challenge at that, just consider some of the viewpoints being represented: the National Association of Independent Insurers (NAII), the Rhode Island Association of Realtors (RIAR), the Rhode Island Trial Lawyers Association, a local pediatrician, and the parent of a lead poisoned child.

”I think it’s important to understand childhood lead poisoning and housing are very complex issues that really touch on so many aspects of our lives,” said Walter Combs, the Department of Health’s executive director of environmental health and its commission representative.

”We recognize childhood lead poisoning as one of the most serious environmental health threats facing children here in Rhode Island,” Combs said.

Children here suffer from lead poisoning, and high blood-lead levels, at a rate about three- to four-times higher than children in other states, DOH officials report. An average of 25 children wind up in Rhode Island hospitals with lead poisoning each year, Combs said.

There are several reasons for this, including the fact state has a number of homes built before the federal government banned lead in residential paint in1978.

One of the main obstacles to resolving the situation is that even though no group disputes the importance of making homes safe, no single group wants to, or can afford to be saddled with the entire cost.

The argument goes if a particular industry, such as insurance or real estate, were to bear the financial brunt, it could affect policy rates or housing availability.

Susan Arnold, executive director of the RIAR, said the trade association has a representative on the commission, but she was not sure what the final proposal will include. “I think we’ll have a little difficulty embracing some of the concepts that might emerge as legislation, because we think it would impact rental fees,” she added.

It is possible the bill could propose mandatory lead inspections, or that property owners could be forced into abatement projects costing $7,000 to $15,000 per unit, she said. With a majority of affected properties being triple decker apartment buildings, owners could face enormous costs, Arnold said.

RIAR’s “rudimentary figures” indicate monthly rental property prices could increase by about $70 per unit, or 15 percent.

“Our concerns in a nutshell are affordability and availability,” Arnold said. “Further legislation, I just don’t see how it can improve the situation of either a renter or a landlord.

”The federal fines (to Realtors and sellers) for noncompliance, for nondisclosure on a sale are huge. They can be up to $10,000 a day. I think we have enough sticks in place, enough punishments. Give the innocent landlords a way to do something,” she said.

Data from the Statewide Multiple Listing Service indicates housing prices have “been in pretty much a free fall since the end of the (last) decade, and just recently leveled off,” Arnold said. “We would hate to see anything happen with a law to change it.

”It could cause people to basically walk away from their property, because as it stands today they’re in a negative equity situation anyway and they can’t afford any bigger problems,” she explained. “This property ends up in limbo land, nobody will claim it, the town will board it up.”

State law now includes an “innocent owner provision,” which protects landlords from liability if they were unaware of their property’s lead hazards. It was part of the Comprehensive Environmental Lead Program, Rhode Island’s first lead hazard legislation package, passed in the early 1990s, according to Payne.

”There’s a section in that that says unless you get cited for a violation you’re an innocent owner, which makes sense in a way because people didn’t put the lead there but there’s no incentive to remediate,” he explained.

But because the DOH, which handles lead inspections, has limited staff, inspections are typically only conducted after tests indicate a child has a blood-lead level of 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood or higher, according to Robert Vanderslice, DOH’s chief of environmental health risk assessment. The Centers for Disease Control considers a child lead poisoned if they have a measurement of 10 micrograms or more, he added.

The NAII would like to see the “innocent owner provision” changed, because it contends that provides little incentive to make properties lead safe. NAII would also like to have a process for certifying property lead safe and a cap on the insurer’s liability should a child become poisoned.

”That’s one of the things insurers have been very clear that they want. There’s very good logic for it, but then you don’t want to give away something for nothing. What we want is to tie it to getting the property very clean,” Payne explained. “On the other hand, the trial lawyers make the point you don’t want to have kids, who’ve been injured because of bad practices by landlords, end up with nothing.”

Donald Griffin, NAII’s voice on the commission, said “the idea is we’ll be happy to help, but we don’t want to be seen as the only ones paying for this.

”If all these homes have lead paint and you say the insurance companies are going to be responsible, basically we become a check writing organization,” Griffin said. ”That does nothing for the prevention, all it’s going to do is increase significantly the cost of insurance in the state and reduce the number of companies that write that type of insurance.”

”There has to be balance between sanctions and enforcement on the one hand, and incentive on the other,” Payne said. “Right now we have very little on the incentive side and sanctions that are pretty heavy; but not very predictable.”

Sen. Thomas J. Izzo, D-Cranston, actually heads up the commission and chairs the Senate’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee. Izzo was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment.

Lead hazards are created by soldering once used to install plumbing equipment; soil tainted years ago by emissions from gasoline, which up until the late 1970s contained lead; and the most commonly known hazard, lead paint. Experts say children can be poisoned by ingesting lead tainted material or by breathing in lead dust. Lead poisoning can cause a range of neurological problems in children, including lowering IQs and increasing instances of antisocial behavior. In extreme cases it can cause death, he added.

The Department of Business Regulations is waiting to see what happens with the commission’s proposal, before determining its policy on granting lead hazard exclusions to insurers that don’t want to offer such protection. About two dozen of the state’s 600 regulated insurance companies have been granted exclusions over the years, according to Paula Pallozzi, DBR’s chief property and casualty insurance analyst. DBR placed a moratorium on the exclusions in 1993, she said.

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