Government, Academics, and Journalists… RI’s Lead Weight


Sometimes it’s the smaller, more-limited issues that provide the best examples by which to understand how our society is directed toward conclusions and actions by the folks who provide information in government, the academy, and the media.  Richard Salit offered a truly excellent case study in yesterday’s Providence Journal — taking up more than a quarter of the front page, no less.

The headline is “Evaluating lead-paint law,” and the lede provides the conclusion that’s meant to affirm the importance of big-government solutions: “Study finds homes safer now, but compliance in some cities low.”

The article is about a study conducted by a Brown University professor in cooperation with the state’s Department of Public Health and the activist groups The Providence Plan and Housing-Works RI.  The conclusion:

The Rhode Island experience provided support for the importance of healthy housing legislation. After the implementation of the lead hazard mitigation legislation, the proportion of properties [in compliance] rose rapidly during the five-year study for properties that housed children at risk for lead poisoning. … Furthermore, the lead burden was significantly reduced … demonstrating … a protective effect for children.

One conspicuous omission from the article is any sense of how significant the “protective effect for children” really is.  We learn that 876 children had been tested for lead before and after the rental properties in which they lived had received certificates of being lead-safe, and their average lead blood level went from 5.2 micrograms per deciliter to 4.3.

What does that mean with reference to actual health? Until 2012, the Centers for Disease Control considered the “level of concern” for lead to be 10 or more micrograms per deciliter.  With the reduced threat of lead poisoning, the fear meter was adjusted to go off above a threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter.  

That number has no reference to health effects.  It’s “based on the U.S. population of children ages 1-5 years who are in the highest 2.5% of children when tested for lead in their blood.” That is, it’s really just a percentile, whereas the earlier threshold was set based on some evidence that it could actually affect development.

That’s sort of like saying that we no longer try to estimate what level of academic achievement will make it difficult for a child to navigate society and succeed in life, but instead take government action wherever we find anybody not in the 97.5th percentile.  For regulators, the happy effect of the new rubric is that it guarantees that some hundreds of thousands of children will always be above the “reference level.”

Prior to the change, levels above 10 would be taken as a sign that remediation in the child’s house (or other environment) was necessary.  Medical treatment still typically doesn’t begin until the blood level is over 45 micrograms per deciliter.

But what ought to jump out and hit any decently educated reader of Salit’s article between the eyes is the total failure to mention any downside.   The article does mention some of the requirements of the regulation, but they’re presented without hint of consequence or even a human face, as if landlords are machines who can and will absorb any new requirement.

Apart from printing and handing tenants informational booklets, landlords of properties built before 1978 have to complete a $50, three-hour course on lead and have inspections every two years.  To perform any work on the building — whether to remediate lead or just to improve the property — the landlord either has to hire a contractor who’s certified in (absurd) lead-aware procedures or become certified him or her self and notify neighbors within a certain radius.  All of this takes no account of the age of the tenant, the location of the building, or any other variable that might differ if landlords and tenants were actual people with unique circumstances.

Salit reports, as if it’s a good thing:

Analyst Alyssa Sylvaria said few states have adopted lead laws like Rhode Island’s…

Do you suppose this contributes to the lack of affordable housing around here — by driving up the cost of managing property as well as driving potential landlords away from the possibility?  How much worse would the Ocean State’s housing situation be if not so many landlords were willing to ignore the law?  How much harm is done to Rhode Island’s families and children by having less discretionary income (and/or time together) and fewer opportunities to earn it because of this regime imposed on the rental market?

Why aren’t academics at Brown studying this effect?  Why don’t journalists even think to look into it?  Why do elected officials continue to strangle their constituents?