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Lead Paint Likely In Older Homes

Limited testing reveals 40 percent failure rate

Apr 20, 2003 | Pensacola News Journal The City of Pensacola already has evidence that potentially thousands of older homes in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties could have lead in them.

The city`s Housing Department has been testing for lead in some older homes as part of its rental assistance program since September 2001.

That`s when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began requiring homes built prior to the outlawing of lead paint in 1978 be tested for lead before a family in the rental program can move in.

What city officials have found is not encouraging.

Of the roughly 150 homes tested so far, 40 percent or more than one of every three failed the lead test. If extrapolated to all older houses in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, more than 50,000 would fail the lead test.

The city tested only houses with children 6 years old or younger, meaning at least one child was living in the roughly 60 rental assistance houses that failed the lead test.

"As a parent I`d want to know if I was going into an older home with lead in it because it could affect my child, potentially, forever," said Dr. John Lanza, Escambia County Health Department director.

The Escambia Health Department is set to embark on a study to determine how many houses are contaminated with lead. Lanza already suspects that many of the nearly 130,000 homes built before 1978 in Escambia/Santa Rosa are contaminated. The city`s numbers only highlight that concern.

Lanza said he believes the Health Department will find a similar percentage of houses will fail the lead test. If so, Lanza plans to ask local elected leaders to adopt legislation requiring older homes be tested for lead when they are sold.

"It`s a situation where the buyer needs to know," heaid.

The city`s Housing Department administers the federal rental assistance program countywide.

About 2,000 people are registered in the rental assistance program open to low-income families, said Pat Hubbard, Housing Department director.

Families receive a voucher, and they choose the home or apartment they wish to rent. The only requirement is the rent does not exceed the stipend.

The rental units must be inspected every year to ensure the property meets minimum federal quality standards. Those standards include proper electrical outlets and windows, potable water and a structurally sound roof.

"We have a lot of absentee rental property owners under the misconception that their property can be used in the voucher program and their property does not even begin to meet our standards," Hubbard said.

The most common cause of lead poisoning is from lead paints that were used predominantly in the 1960s and earlier.

The federal lead testing requirement has helped lower rates for the most severe lead poisoning cases nationwide, said Pam Meyer, an epidemiologist at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention`s lead poisoning prevention branch.

Seamas Hunt is the city`s lead paint inspector.

On a chilly, cloudy afternoon, Hunt climbed a ladder and carefully scraped chips of tan paint on a wall over the front door into a small plastic bag.

"I scoop it up, and that`s it," said Hunt, a native of Ireland. "That`s all I need to test."

The paint chips are sent off to a private lab in Maryland.

Hunt doesn`t think the paint on this cinder-block house in Ensley contains any lead. It`s just a hunch. The paint chips aren`t very thick, and usually thick paint chips contain lead, he said.

Residents of the home did not want to be interviewed.

If the lead tests are positive, there`s a whole procedure for dealing with the problem. It begins by informing the property owner, who must have a certified lead removal specialist deal with the lead.

This is usually not very expensive, and most often involves carefully scraping off the lead paint and making sure all the lead chips and flakes are thrown away. Then the affected area is repainted.

"The city works with them through the process," Hunt said.

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