By Lindsay Toler
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The location for the third annual National Lead-Safe Housing Conference and Exposition last May couldn't have been more fitting: St. Louis, with its aging and often dilapidated housing stock, is widely regarded as one of the worst cities in the nation in terms of the number of children poisoned by lead each year. St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon took to the podium in a banquet room of the Regal Riverfront Hotel to speak to the crowd of about 300: nurses at local clinics, state and federal health officials, workers at nonprofit agencies, lead inspectors and lead-abatement contractors. The mayor rattled off the city's dismal statistics: More than 20 percent of children tested each year have increased levels of lead in their blood, and in some neighborhoods the figure is 40 percent. He touched on the litany of problems that lead causes: Lead-poisoned children are five times more likely to have reading difficulties and seven times more likely to drop out of school.
"Our city has been struggling with this problem for a little over 20 years -- I've been in office for two years," the mayor said. "The clock has run out now. It is time to deal, I feel seriously, with the problem. And we are moving rather rapidly ahead to do that."
He announced that, within weeks, he would introduce a plan to eliminate the lead-paint problem in St. Louis: "We are looking to change ordinances, to step up inspections and do a whole host of things that relate to dealing with this very insidious and longstanding problem in our community." He read a proclamation declaring that week "Lead-Safe Housing Awareness Week," and when he finished, his speech was met with a rousing round of applause.
Two days later, Harmon signed an executive order mandating a 10-year initiative with a slew of measures. He vowed to have building inspectors look for lead while inspecting homes in the city's housing-conservation districts, which cover two-thirds of St. Louis. He called for an ordinance that would add $2 to the cost of building permits to raise money for cleaning up lead-contaminated housing. He ordered that $1 million in community-development funds be set aside for forgivable lead-abatement loans to property owners.
On the heels of Harmon's initiative, the Board of Aldermen in July passed three ordinances relating to lead: one updating and strengthening the city's lead ordinance, another increasing by $2 the building-permit fees and a third diverting Medicaid funds for lead testing and treatment from the city's general coffers to a special fund to provide temporary housing to families dealing with lead hazards in their homes.
In January, Harmon went after the lead-paint industry, filing a lawsuit against the Lead Industries Association and a host of paint manufacturers, accusing them of conspiring to hide the dangerous effects of lead for decades while actively marketing their products as safe, even beneficial, to human beings. The pending lawsuit seeks both punitive and compensatory damages, including the costs of treating lead-poisoned children and cleaning up lead hazards in homes.
But nearly a year after the mayor's dramatic speech at that national conference, much of his initiative exists only on paper. So far, it has had little, if any, meaningful impact on preventing childhood lead poisoning in St. Louis.
· About $1.3 million for the two loan programs exists in separate funds, but not a dollar has been spent. Inexplicably, the criteria for the largest of the loan programs are so restrictive that only families of children already poisoned may apply, leaving out families who want to prevent the problem.
· Although $50,000-$60,000 in Medicaid money is available in another fund to provide temporary housing, it remains in the "collecting stages," according to the St. Louis Health Department. No money has been spent.
· Although the city's building inspectors have conducted 5,000 inspections since September, they aren't certified to do lead inspections, as required by state law, so they've merely conducted "visual surveys" to look for peeling paint. Only 20 of the 5,000 inspected buildings have been referred to the Health Department for actual lead inspections.
· Even though the new lead ordinance enacted last July allows the Health Department to conduct lead abatement when landlords refuse to do so, and bill them for the work, in not a single instance has that has occurred.
· The same ordinance also called for the compilation of a list of "lead-safe" housing alternatives for families of poisoned children. No list exists.
· Meanwhile, St. Louis children continue to be poisoned at a rate nearly six times the national average.
Symbolic of the city's lethargy is the fact that even the walls of the stairwell outside the city's lead clinic on Grand Boulevard have large sections of peeling paint that contain lead at twice the level deemed acceptable by federal guidelines -- a condition that top city health officials have been aware of for at least two years but have yet to repair.
When interviewed recently about the progress of his initiative, the mayor seemed surprise at the lack of progress. He did not know that the number of lead-inspection referrals was so small. He did not know that no loans for lead cleanup had been extended. He says he was under the impression his initiatives were working "moderately well.... We have a process now where we didn't have one before. I have to think it's better than what we had before."