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Local Program Aims to Eliminate Lead Hazards in Homes

Scientists say lead is the biggest environmental health threat to children. It can cause neurological damage at even low levels. Lead-based paint in older homes is said to be the main source of exposu

Local Program Aims to Eliminate Lead Hazards in Homes

In the shadow of downtown in San Diego’s Sherman Heights neighborhood, members of a lead abatement team greet a homeowner. As they stand in the living room, Luz Palomino explains what her team from the Environmental Health Coalition is about to do.

Palomino: We’re going to do a visual inspection of your home to identify risks, to check the condition of the paint, and we’ll make note of where we find lead. We’ll also take some samples from the floor, windows, and any peeling paint.

Palomino gets right to work. She goes outside and looks at the window sills. She notices the paint is worn down to the wood.  

Palomino: Here, and here. These yellow colors, there’s lead. All around here, there’s lead.

To double check, Palomino takes out a lead test swab. She breaks it open, spreads some powder on the chipped paint, and rubs the swab in it. She waits to see if it changes color.                 

  Palomino: Yes. It’s really strong.

Palomino will refer this home for a more thorough inspection, to pinpoint exactly where the lead hazards are. Then, contractors will figure out what needs to be repainted, and what doors or windows need to be replaced. The work will be done at no charge to the homeowner. 


Before Palomino and her team leave, she asks the homeowner how many children there are in the family.

  Homeowner: 24 grandchildren, 20 great grandchildren, and one great great grandchild is on the way. And they’re always coming over here….

That raises a red flag. Palomino will recommend the children get their blood tested. Health officials say in 2005, more than 10,000 San Diego children tested positive for lead.

Leticia Ayala directs the Environmental Health Coalition’s Campaign to Eliminate Childhood Lead Poisoning. Ayala says there’s lots of exposure to lead in San Diego’s older neighborhoods.

  Ayala: The number one source is the lead-based paint in the older homes and the dust that gets created from opening and closing your doors and your windows. That’s an invisible dust, and kids put everything in their mouths, they’re crawling, so that’s how they become poisoned.

The federal government banned lead in paint in 1978. However, tens of thousands of San Diego homes that were built before then may still have lead-based paint. And that means a lot of children could be at risk. Doctors say the problem with lead poisoning, is that it strikes without warning.

  Dr. Ruth Heifetz: Well, there are no symptoms. Or if there are symptoms, they’re very general symptoms, and that’s why it’s so important for children to be screened.

Heifetz is with the UCSD Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. She says children can be severely damaged by lead.

  Heifetz: They can have a drop in their IQ, they can have problems with growth. The children who have the elevated lead levels seem to be more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior when they’re older. So there are many long-term effects, too, that we’re just beginning to understand.

In the past four years, the Environmental Health Coalition has tested 230 homes in San Diego and National City. Eighty percent have contained lead hazards.

To further reduce exposure to lead, the Coalition is urging the San Diego City Council to adopt a new ordinance. The measure would make peeling lead-based paint a code violation. Landlords and homeowners would have to repair lead hazards. And it would require all pre-1978 homes to be inspected, and made lead-safe as a condition of sale. The law would allow buyers and sellers to negotiate who would be responsible for the work.

Mike Mercurio is the director of governmental affairs for the San Diego Association of Realtors. He complains the ordinance would drive up the cost of housing.

  Mercurio: In the specific areas where this seems to be an issue, it’s in areas where affordable housing is a challenge. So it’s just going to create yet another barrier for those people that are also trying to pursue the American dream of owning their own home, which we want everybody to do that, and we everybody also to be safe.

But Heifetz believes the only way to ensure people are safe is to inspect older homes.

  Heifetz: Unfortunately, until the ordinance is passed, and we get a handle on how many homes are impacted, we’re really using children who come up with elevated lead levels as our screening measure. And we really feel that we should be attacking the problem in the housing.

The lead-free ordinance passed the San Diego city council’s land use and housing committee in 2004. But it’s been in limbo since then. Proponents hope to put it before the full council by the end of the year.