Housing Advocates Track Indoor Environmental Hazards to Spur Improvements

When the community health promoters of San Diego’s Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) say they’re doing pollution testing, many people probably imagine samples from the local rivers or the air downwind of a factory. But they’re just as likely to mean testing for lead paint and other health hazards inside poorly maintained housing.

For years, environmental organizations have used pollution data as ammunition in campaigns to oppose the siting of polluting facilities, demand more protective regulations or better enforcement of existing ones, and press industries to use cleaner technologies. Following their example, advocates for decent housing, child health, and tenants’ rights are learning to use indoor pollution data as a tool in campaigns to improve housing conditions.

Although indoor environmental hazards typically pose far greater risks to human health than outdoor pollution, they are widely overlooked by advocates, regulators, policy makers, and the media. Greater toxic exposures are associated with confined spaces and significant time spent indoors – especially in distressed urban communities where there is a shortage of recreational green space for children. Older, dilapidated properties usually pose the most severe health hazards – often a combination of lead paint with hazards such as carbon monoxide, mold, cockroaches, dust mites, pesticide residue, or radon. Addressing such environmental hazards can substantially improve the physical condition of the housing at the same time.

EHC had traditionally focused on fighting large industrial polluters. When it turned to the indoor environment, it found that in sharp contrast to the wealth of publicly available data on ambient toxins and industrial pollution sources, almost no residential property-specific information exists about indoor health hazards. EHC organizers realized they would have to collect data about these hazards themselves.

In Fall 2000, 18 community health promoters from EHC’s staff were trained in taking samples of paint, dust, and soil for lead analysis. They also learned how to facilitate discussions with community residents about lead hazards in their housing and how to protect their children from lead exposure. They then went out and conducted lead hazard sampling and visual assessments in a random sample of homes in National City and the Sherman Heights neighborhood of San Diego, two San Diego County communities that local blood lead screening and census data suggested might be “hot zones” for lead poisoning. According to Leticia Ayala, project coordinator, almost 70 percent of the dwellings they tested contained at least one lead hazard, and nearly all of those were occupied by families with children.

Testing for lead is a good starting point for groups like EHC. Federal law requires disclosure of known information about lead hazards in older housing, and that offers organizers a potential enforcement tool. There are national standards for dangerous levels of lead in residential dust, soil, and deteriorated paint, permitting organizers to determine definitively what is and is not a hazard. And remediating lead paint and dust hazards often reduces many other environmental hazards at the same time.

The tools for identifying lead hazards in housing have also become simpler and more accessible. EHC’s training was based on a week-long HUD lead inspector/risk assessor course, but HUD and the Environmental Protection Agency have also developed a one-day lead dust sampling training course that is readily accessible to community groups. By completing this or other federal lead evaluation training courses, advocates can enhance the credibility of their sampling results. Competition among labs has reduced the cost of lab analysis for lead dust samples to $5–$10 per sample, and several labs will negotiate even deeper discounts for nonprofit advocates. Low-cost evaluation tools and protocols also exist or are under development for many other hazards.

Once a group has evidence of health hazards, it can use this information in many different ways. EHC has analyzed and mapped its sampling results as part of a campaign to press local government agencies to develop a comprehensive countywide lead poisoning prevention plan. EHC also convinced the National City code enforcement agency to train its housing inspectors in lead hazard testing and to assist property owners in correcting any lead hazards discovered during inspections and is pushing the San Diego Housing Commission to apply to HUD for a lead hazard control grant for Sherman Heights. The group also plans to use its hazard data to reinforce its demand that a portion of state tobacco tax receipts be dedicated to subsidizing lead hazard controls in low-income rental housing.

Other groups have used such findings to focus on specific buildings. In June 2000, Project 504, a Minneapolis tenant advocacy group, used the results from its own environmental sampling to get a 19-unit rental property placed into receivership to ensure correction of serious water leaks, moisture problems, and lead hazards. The Los Angeles Healthy Homes Partnership recently used results from lead dust sampling and visual assessments performed by trained community health promoters to engage local property owners in negotiations that have led to repairs and to force recalcitrant owners’ properties into the code enforcement system.

EHC organizers have already learned a great deal from their first attempt at environmental sampling. First, it’s not as daunting as it might seem. Unlike researchers who collect exhaustive data to describe and analyze a problem, organizers only need sufficient data to document code violations and health hazards in order to trigger effective action. EHC has already convinced officials in National City and San Diego to act by documenting widespread hazards in a random sample of only 40 housing units.

Second, it’s essential to make sure responsibility is not shifted from landlords and government agencies to tenants just because a community group took some initiative. While EHC’s health promoters inform occupants about identified hazards and give them information about legal rights and practical steps to take to reduce their risk, they pointedly tell residents that repairing lead hazards is not their responsibility. EHC’s clear goal is to make landlords and government agencies fulfill their obligations.

And finally, technical assistance is critical to success. EHC and dozens of local advocacy organizations are collaborating with the national Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning as it launches the Community Environmental Health Resource Center (CEHRC) to provide needed support to local advocates. CEHRC services will range from developing sampling protocols to negotiating volume discounts with equipment suppliers and labs to facilitating peer-to-peer support and information sharing among local groups. It will also provide pass-through grants, help publicize results from local projects, and do whatever it can to support the use of environmental sampling in the quest for safe decent housing.

 

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