By Jonathan Gerhardson
A recent report from the state’s Department of Public Health has named Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee, Westfield and Pittsfield as among the municipalities at the highest risk for lead poisoning in the state.
This past November, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health released its annual Childhood Lead Poisoning Surveillance Report for 2021. The report is part of a larger screening initiative by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provides funding for and collects data from 29 states that have voluntarily enrolled in the program. According to the report, Holyoke and Springfield ranked second and third for childhood lead exposure, after New Bedford.
Monitoring childhood lead exposure is important because children are especially prone to the harmful effects of lead. According to the CDC, no safe blood lead level has been identified. Children are smaller than adults, so the same amount of lead exposure will cause relatively higher concentrations in their bodies. Compounding this is the fact that, according to the World Health Organization, childrens’ bodies absorb lead 4-5 times more readily than adults.
Lead can affect nearly every system in the body, and the negative effects can be permanent. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention and academic achievement.
Despite a ban on tetraethyl lead additives in automotive fuel in 1975, and on lead on paint in residential buildings in 1978, the negative health effects from lead exposure continue to be a serious public health issue in Massachusetts. Fortunately, decades of ongoing efforts to combat the problem have shown incremental improvements across generations. Massachusetts screens more children than most other states in the CDC’s program, yet has reported less confirmed childhood blood lead levels than states with worse screening compliance.
How Western Mass is Affected
Disproportionately, the places in Massachusetts where children are at the highest risk for lead poisoning are low-income communities and communities of color.
Living in a low-income community is the greatest risk factor for childhood lead poisoning. According to the DPH report, children in these communities are 3.4 times more likely to have a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter — the level which Massachusetts classifies as lead poisoning serious enough to require medical interventions such as chelation therapy. Multi race children are three times more likely to be poisoned by lead, and black children 1.7 times more likely, compared to white children, the report says.
New to this year’s Lead Surveillance Report is the classification of risk levels for rural communities. The report finds that “children living in the most rural areas of the state are 1.4 times more likely to have elevated blood lead levels compared to children living in urban communities.”
Previously risk levels were only assessed in communities with larger populations. Since western Massachusetts is considerably more rural than communities east of Worcester, this year’s report reveals several communities with high lead exposure risk that were previously unreported. One of the highest-risk rural clusters is an area identified as North Quabbin, which includes the towns of Athol and Orange. Of all the rural clusters in the state, only a small portion of the Blackstone Valley area — near the border of Connecticut south of Worcester — has comparably high rates of lead poisoning.
Officially, lead abatement and related issues are under the jurisdiction of the state Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Due to the scope of this article, The Shoestring was unable to interview local officials from every affected community, but Board of Health minutes between 2021 and 2022 from Holyoke do not contain the word “lead” once. Chicopee claimed its Board of Health did not meet during this period.
“There’s a lead program at the state level,” Chicopee Public Health Director Lisa Sanders said. “So [when someone expresses concern] we know which direction to point them in. But are we having lead paint campaigns? No, we’re not.”
Holyoke Public Health Director Sean Gonsalves said that Holyoke does not keep its own records about lead either, and that they use the state’s database.
“Lead safety can be a bit of a moving target,” Gonsalves added. “A home might be lead safe at the time of an inspection, but over time, paint may become loose or other conditions in the home may change that shift the property out of compliance.”
Gonsalves added that the city works closely with its residents and the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program to resolve concerns about potential lead in a residence.
“Some properties that have never had abatement may never be required to due to the age of the occupants,” said Gonsalves. “Some properties that previously had abatement may require additional work in the future.”
The Massachusetts lead law gives all children under 6 years old the right to live in a lead free home. This right cannot be waived by a parent or guardian who owns their own home, nor by a waiver form presented by a landlord to their tenant.
Additionally, it is illegal at both the state and federal level for a landlord to discriminate in renting to pregnant women or families with children under 6. Renters have the right to have their homes inspected for lead free of charge, and if any is found it is the landlord’s responsibility to provide remediation by a specially licensed contractor.
In 2019, the Holyoke based Massachusetts Fair Housing Center sued the state arguing that in practice the lead law has caused landlords to discriminate against renters who are pregnant or have a child under 6. At the time of writing the lawsuit is ongoing, with expert witness testimony expected sometime before June, according to the case docket.
On Jan. 20, state Sen. John Velis, whose district includes Holyoke and Westfield, introduced a bill that would establish a trust fund for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. If passed, the bill would provide grants and other assistance for lead-abatement projects involving residential housing units or housing projects consisting of households with incomes up to 100% of the area median income.
“The long-term health consequences of lead poisoning in children are abundantly clear and unfortunately many communities in our region, especially Holyoke, are still seeing high levels of childhood lead poisoning and exposure,” Velis said. “Far too many homes continue to have lead in them and far too many families are still unaware of this.”
Velis isn’t the only legislator trying to solve the lead issue.
Also on Jan. 20 — the cutoff for filing bills for this legislative session — state Sen. Edward J. Kennedy filed a bill that proposes to amend the lead law to ban the use of lead paint on outdoor structures, including industrial buildings and bridges, which are presently exempt from the law.
Kennedy told The Shoestring that he filed the bill for this current session and that last session it received a favorable recommendation in committee but never made it to the senate floor.
“The bill would essentially just prohibit the use of lead paint on non residential buildings and outdoor structures,” Kennedy said. “And it’s as simple as that.”
“The bottom line really is that this is a moral problem. We need to solve it…” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington D.C. based think tank.
There is also evidence of the societal and economic benefits possible from continued lead abatement and prevention strategies. Some 400,000 deaths a year are attributable to lead exposure, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2018. That makes lead-related deaths comparable to the number of deaths from cigarettes, and over five times higher than deaths due to accidental opioid overdoses. According to the study, adults with elevated lead levels showed a 37% increase in all-cause mortality and a 70% in cardiovascular related deaths.
The impact of lead exposure prevention measures can be huge.
“For every dollar spent on controlling lead hazards, $17–$221 would be returned in health benefits, …higher lifetime earnings, tax revenue, reduced spending on special education, and reduced criminal activity,” Gould wrote.
What’s Causing Lead Poisoning?
The cause of lead exposure in Massachusetts is different from other parts of the country.
Massachusetts does have lead pipes currently in service throughout the state. But unlike places such as Flint, Newark, Chicago and Baltimore — where elevated levels of lead have been found in drinking water — lead paint dust and contaminated soil account for 88% of all exposure, with 9% attributable to contaminated spices and the remaining causes unknown according to the DPH report.
Water superintendents from both Holyoke and Chicopee told The Shoestring that their most recent tests of the drinking water supply showed no presence of lead.
A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that Massachusetts has some of the highest concentrations of lead in its topsoil in the country. While it’s difficult to say exactly why that is the case, oftentimes the earth near roads which were heavily trafficked prior to the leaded-gas ban remain contaminated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Another notable commonality of high-risk communities in Massachusetts is that many are mill towns.
The pollution caused by industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries surrounding former mills is well established. Holyoke, New Bedford and Malden are all home to EPA Superfund sites. A report from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection shows that in 2010 in Holyoke, 200 tons of soil had to be excavated from the former Gas Works facility on Canal Street due to high levels of contaminants, including lead. An analysis showed the soil contained lead at a concentration 177 times higher than the DEP’s reportable level.
Massachusetts has the fourth-oldest housing stock in the country. Because lead paint was nearly ubiquitous before being banned in homes in 1978, and 68% of the state’s housing is from pre-1978, a majority of the population lives in housing that most likely contains lead. Properly abated, these homes can still be safe, but over time wear and tear can cause even professionally abated homes to have their lead layer exposed again.
In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice fined Home Depot over $20 million dollars for skirting the Toxic Substances Control Act by subcontracting with improperly licensed contractors for customer home improvement projects, including in Massachusetts. It was the highest civil penalty ever assessed under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Public works projects remain an overlooked and understudied source of lead paint exposure.
The Massachusetts Lead Law exempts a variety of lead paints, including paints used for “industrial” uses on roads and bridges. Because lead-based paint is very good at preventing corrosion of steel, essentially every bridge in the state except very new ones are coated in lead. Its use is so ubiquitous that standard operating procedure for bridge maintenance is to treat the bridge as if it were painted with lead paint, unless it is documented to be lead free, according to guidelines set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The abatement of lead on bridges is a big undertaking.
“You can’t do it all at once,” said Perry Gottesfeld, the executive director of Occupational Knowledge International and author of the paper “Time to Ban Lead in Industrial Paints and Coatings.”
Gottsfield described the containment efforts necessary for removing lead paint from old bridges as “massive,” but necessary to prevent the paint dust from contaminating surrounding soil and waterways.
“It’s a very, very expensive endeavor,” Gottesfeld said. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation requires the removal of old lead paint to be done under controlled circumstances, requiring that negative pressure zones be set up in the area where abrasives are blasted. All MassDOT funded projects since 1992 have been lead paint free, according to Communications Director Kristen Pennucci.
But due to a current lack of regulation regarding industrial lead paint in Massachusetts, abatement efforts from the state and federal government could be hamstrung by municipal and private entities that continue to use lead based paint.
Per the current law, there is nothing preventing private industry from using lead paint on vehicles, equipment and non-residential buildings. Lead Silico Chromate Paint is among several types of lead paint still available for use as a structural coating by municipalities and private industry. Additionally, some yellow road striping paint contains lead chromate, which was banned in the European Union in 2021, but is not banned in the United States, although its use seems to be declining, and The Shoestring could not identify any MSDS sheets specifying the pigment in recent projects, older road coatings may contain the toxic compound.
The use of lead based coatings has become less common in recent years in the United States, but production has not been completely eliminated. According to Gottsfeld, “unless a regulation restricts all uses of lead additives in paints then there is no realistic way to ensure that ‘industrial’ coatings will not be used in homes, schools, or hospitals.”
PPG, the second largest manufacturer of paint in the world, voluntarily stopped producing lead- based paint in 2016, but the others have not, including the global leader in paint manufacturing, Sherwin Williams, according to Gottsfeld. In 2021, the United States exported 6,859,000 kilograms of lead oxide pigment to Mexico and other countries where less restrictions on lead paint exist.
Jonathan Gerhardson is a writer and journalist living in western Massachusetts. Send news tips, comments, and work inquiries to jon.gerhardson at proton.me. Follow him on Mastodon at https://newsie.social/@highvizghilliesuit.
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