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Lead Paint Scam

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Lead Paint Scam

June 24, 2002
Public SectorOther

The New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), a Naderite advocacy group, has just issued a report claiming that Gotham still faces a massive public-health problem from lead paint in apartments and houses. Using some back-of-the-envelope guestimates, NYPIRG claims that over the last six years 136,000 New York kids showed signs of lead poisoning.

The truth, as found in the city Health Department's own reports, is that lead-paint poisoning has been falling sharply in the city—a good news story that the local press has all but ignored.

Why the drop? Lead paint was outlawed years ago. Industrial pollution has fallen. And leaded gasoline (a key factor in higher lead levels) is long off the market.

The city requires doctors to start treating a child for potential poisoning when the child's blood shows lead levels of above 20 micrograms per deciliter. The number of Gotham children with such levels has fallen 65 percent in the last five years, to just 452 cases in 2001. Less serious cases (lower lead levels of 10 micrograms, requiring patient education and follow-up testing) dropped from 14,406 cases in 1996 to 4,656 last year.

The Centers for Disease Control say that serious health damage doesn't occur until lead in the blood reaches concentrations four to six times higher than the city's current action levels.

Though some scientists have argued that any amount of lead in the blood will reduce a child's IQ by several points, most scientific researchers who've looked at the problem observe that in the 1970s, when leaded gas was the norm, the average blood lead level for all American children was 25 micrograms—nearly 10 times today's average. If such a lead level really damaged intelligence or health, scientists point out, half of all adults in America today would be walking around with severe impairments.

In fact, the NYPIRG study actually underscores the progress here: The great majority of the children it claims are suffering from "lead poisoning" fall into the lowest risk classification—that is, its "victims" have significantly lower lead levels than did the average American child of 25 years ago.

"Kids who test at these lower levels should not be termed ‘lead poisoned,' " says Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health. " 'Poisoning' is a loaded word that takes this discussion out of the realm of the scientific."

And growing evidence suggests that many of those few children who have potentially serious lead poisoning are immigrant kids from poor countries who contracted it there, not in New York.

One recent study found that 11 percent of all immigrant and refugee kids who arrived in Massachusetts from developing countries from 1995 through 1999 had elevated lead levels—a much higher rate than among American children. And a preliminary investigation of New York kids with elevated lead levels shows that a high proportion are immigrants or frequent travelers to Third World countries.

NYPIRG's "solution" is also hysterically overwrought: Replace the city's 1998 lead-paint law with a much tougher measure, now before the City Council, that would force landlords and homeowners to remove lead paint wherever it's found, even where it isn't exposed and where disturbing the paint might do more harm than simply containing it.

Judging from its past history, NYPIRG doubtless has another goal here. Like most Nader-inspired groups, it hews to an agenda set by trial lawyers, who once made a fat bundle off suing landlords (including the biggest landlord of all, New York City) for causing lead poisoning in children who ingested flaking lead-based paint on their premises.

With serious cases of lead poisoning now vanishingly rare, such lawsuits have dried up. But the new law would set off a wave of suits, overburdening New York's already strained budget, because it makes it easier to sue landlords, including the city, even in cases where it's not clear that it is a child's home that is the cause of lead contamination.

The real poison threat here is not lead paint but the atmosphere created by "studies" like NYPIRG's.

From the forthcoming issue of The Manhattan Institute's City Journal.