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Lead and Healthy Homes Program

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Our Lead and Healthy Homes Program works to improve the quality, health and safety of low-income housing in Philadelphia

Prevent Lead Poisoning. Get your home tested. Get your child tested. Get the facts! Click here…

We offer services to help you and your family make your home healthier and safer:

  • We provide information, referral and training to promote healthy homes and prevent lead poisoning.
  • We offer private in-home services to eligible families, including home inspection and remediation to reduce hazards.
  • We enforce lead laws and regulations, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Law Department.


Risks of Lead Exposure from Demolition, Construction, and Soil

How big a problem is lead poisoning in Philadelphia?

The problem of exposure to lead has been with us for decades, ever since corporations put lead into paint and gasoline in the 1900s. The federal government banned lead in paint in 1978 and phased out lead in gasoline in the 1970s and 1980s, and since then, lead levels in children have fallen dramatically. In the late 1970s, 88 percent of children in the United States had lead levels above 10 ug/dL.* By 2008, the percent of children with lead levels above 10 ug/dL had fallen to 1.2 percent.

Trends in blood lead levels in U.S. children, 1971-2008


In Philadelphia today, over 90 percent of young children are tested for lead poisoning, with many tested more than once. The graph below shows trends in the percent of children newly identified as having elevated blood lead levels in Philadelphia. The percent of children with blood levels above 10 ug/dL fell from 4.5 percent of those tested (1,412 children) in 2006 to 0.9 percent (341 children) in 2016. The percent of children with blood lead levels between 5 and 9 ug/dL fell from 11.2 percent in 2006 to 3.4 percent in 2016.

Trends in elevated blood lead levels in children in Philadelphia, 2006-2016


The primary source of lead exposure to children – in Philadelphia as in the rest of the country – is lead-based paint and the dust produced from lead-based paint inside homes built before 1978. As this paint deteriorates over time, it chips and flakes, and the dust generated from it layers on floors. Toddlers then get exposed to lead because they play on the floors and often put their hands in their mouths. Other potential sources of lead exposure include soil, water (leached from lead pipes), folk remedies, and objects with lead-based paints from other countries.

* Lead that is ingested interferes with learning and can cause behavior problems. Higher levels of lead (above 25 micrograms per deciliter [ug/dL]) cause more marked effects, but lower levels of lead (above 5 or 10 ug/dL) cause more subtle effects, and no level of lead in the body is felt to be entirely safe. In 1991 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified a blood lead level of 10 ug/dL as a “level of concern”. This terminology was changed in 2012, and a blood level of 5 ug/dL is simply now referred to as a “reference level” because approximately 2.5 percent of children nationally had levels above this.

Are children living in Philadelphia neighborhoods that previously had lead smelters at greater risk of lead poisoning?

The lead testing data show that children in neighborhoods that use to contain lead smelters are not at greater risk for lead exposure. The map below shows the percent of children with lead levels above 5 ug/dL by zip code; the zip codes that are darker blue are the ones with higher levels of lead exposure. The former lead smelter sites appear as small yellow circles. The zip codes with former smelters do not have higher rates of lead exposure than other areas of the city.

The zip codes with the highest lead exposure rates are those with more old housing (built before 1950) and those with more low-income families. This is probably because older housing tends to have more lead in the paint, and low-income housing is more likely to have paint that hasn’t been maintained.

Rates of elevated blood lead levels by zip code and former smelter sites

Is construction activity in the River Wards neighborhoods of Philadelphia increasing the risk of lead exposure for children living there?

The data on children’s blood testing indicates that construction activity has not increased the risk of lead exposure in these neighborhoods; on the contrary, as construction activity has risen in the River Wards lead levels in children in the 19125 and 19134 zip codes (graph on right below) have been falling sharply to the lowest on record (graph on left below). During the sharp increase in construction activity from the recession in 2009 to the first quarter of 2017, in zip code 19125 (where the former J.T. Lewis/Anzon smelter was) the proportion of children with elevated blood lead levels fell by 86 percent.

                   Permits for demolition and construction in River Wards          Rates of lead levels above 5 ug/dL by  year in key zip codes

How can I protect my child from being exposed to lead from paint?

  • Keep painted surfaces (especially those on and around windows and doors) in good condition to minimize paint deterioration.
  • When remodeling, take precautions to avoid exposure to dust.
  • When renovating, repairing, or painting, hire only EPA- or state-approved Lead-Safe certified renovation firms. No one should scrape or sand old paint without taking very careful precautions (see resources below).
  • Keep floors and other surfaces clean of dust with frequent wet mopping.
  • Wash young children’s hands, bottles, pacifiers, and toys often.

For more detail, see EPA’s “Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home,” available at www.epa.gov/lead

Information for contractors, building owners and other professionals about reducing exposure to lead in paint and soil is available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Interim Controls guidance (Chapter 11 of Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing), available at https://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/documents/huddoc?id=lbph-13.pdf.

Should I test the soil in my yard for lead?

A national study* found that nearly all housing units built before 1940 had some amount of lead in their yards, probably from deteriorated exterior paint and leaded gasoline. In this study, of those yards of homes built before 1940 in which patches of bare soil were tested, 43 percent had lead levels above 400 ppm, the EPA threshold for a lead hazard. Based on this study, it is likely that most houses in older neighborhoods in Philadelphia have some amount of lead in the soil in their yards, and a single negative test would not provide reassurance that high levels of lead are not present in some parts of the yard. For this reason, people living in older neighborhoods in the city, regardless of test results, should take basic steps to reduce the exposure of children and pregnant women to soil.

For people who are interested in learning how much lead is in their soil, testing is available through a number of laboratories. The EPA accredits laboratories that meet requirements to accurately test paint chips, dust or soil samples for lead through its National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program (NLLAP). More information about this program and a list of laboratories that will conduct lead tests is available at www.epa.gov/lead.

* Jacobs DE, Clickner RP, Zhou JY et al. The prevalence of lead-based paint hazards in U.S. housing. Environ Health Perspect 2002;110:A599-A606.

How can I protect my child from being exposed to lead from soil?

  • Keep soil covered. You may want to have a durable cover over the soil to keep the leaded soil undisturbed and in place. Pavement (concrete or asphalt) is a durable cover. Grass can be a durable cover where grass grows well. For areas where grass does not grow well (high traffic areas, shade, poor soil), you can put down a durable landscape fabric and then cover it with several inches of mulch (wood chips, leaf mulch) or with clean soil. It is especially important to cover the soil in areas where children play.


  • It is also especially important to cover the soil around the dripline of any building, since that is where the lead contamination from exterior paint is likely to be highest. Plant long-lived shrubs. Cover the soil with a thick layer (several inches) of mulch. Don’t grow food plants or annuals within four feet of buildings.


  • Reduce the tracking of soil into your home. Use walk-off doormats inside and outside of all entrances and leave shoes at the door. Wash your children’s hands after playing outside.

  • Food grown in lead-containing soil can acquire lead. If you want to garden edible plants, cover the garden area with landscape fabric, cover this fabric with clean soil and compost, and cover paths with mulch. Grow only fruit (apples, grapes, strawberries, melons) and fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, beans, corn, squash) and not roots (potatoes), stems or leaves (herbs, lettuce), which are more likely to absorb lead from soil.  


Adapted from “Protecting your children and your food from lead in soil” by Dr. Kimberly A. Stoner, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Information for contractors, building owners, and other professionals about reducing exposure to lead in paint and soil is available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Interim Controls guidance (Chapter 11 of Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing), available at https://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/documents/huddoc?id=lbph-13.pdf

Does demolition of houses increase the risk of lead exposure to neighbors?

Over the long term, demolition and removal of older houses reduces lead exposure by removing the primary source of lead in neighborhoods – older paint. However, it is possible that during the demolition there can be an increased risk of lead exposure to immediate neighbors from dust originating from the painted walls of the houses being demolished. In Philadelphia, however, demolitions in populated areas generate significantly less dust because they are generally conducted by hand, without heavy machinery. Additionally, during the manual demolition process painted wood and trim are sorted and removed from the demolition site rather than being crushed along with masonry debris.

In August 2016 the City of Philadelphia’s Air Pollution Control Board promulgated requirements that aim to limit the public’s exposure to dust generated during demolition and construction. These rules, known as Air Management Regulation (AMR) II., Sec. IX., require the owner and operators of construction or demolition projects to: 1) notify people neighboring properties of pending construction or demolition activities a minimum of 10 days before starting work, and 2) use basic dust control techniques such as application of water for dust suppression and use of dust extraction or vacuums with power tools. The rules also require a special dust control permit for demolitions involving buildings that are more than three stories, more than 40 feet tall, or encompass more than 10,000 square feet. The regulations are available at http://www.phila.gov/health/pdfs/AMSRegulationI_II_III_Combined20161011a.pdf

If you believe a demolition contractor is not following these regulations, or if you have any concerns or complains about dust, call the Department of Public Health’s Air Management Services at 215-685-7580 or 311.

Does excavation increase the risk of lead exposure?

The lead in soil is thought to primarily come from a combination of deteriorated lead-based paint on the exterior of houses and leaded gasoline. This lead tends to remain on the top few inches of soil. Excavation (digging several feet deep) to create a foundation for a new building will generally expose soil that is far deeper than this, which in most circumstances should contain less lead.

The City has not found any studies suggesting that excavation increases the risk of lead exposure in children. Furthermore, the sharp decrease in the percent of children with elevated blood lead levels in the 19125 and 19134 zip codes during a time of rapidly increasing construction activity is not consistent with a conclusion that construction excavation is causing an increase in lead exposure.


Lead-Free Kids: Preventing Lead Poisoning in Philadelphia

In June 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney released the final report and recommendations from the Philadelphia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Group. 

Services

Parents and Caregivers »
Parents and caregivers can protect themselves and their families from environmental health risks.

Health Care Providers »
Medical professionals can help to prevent lead poisoning and other home-based hazards.

Landlords and Tenants »
Landlords and tenants play an important role in ensuring that rental homes are healthy and safe.

Laws and Regulations »
Laws and regulations protect Philadelphia residents from unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.

Lead Paint Disclosure and Certification »
We help landlords to comply with the Philadelphia law that requires property rented to families with children 6 years and younger to be lead safe.

Resources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Environmental Protection Agency
Pennsylvania Lead Awareness Project
USDA’s Healthy Home Partnerships