EHC study reveals housing health horrors

Lead-SALTA Program works to address lead poisoning in local communities

provided by Environmental Health Coalition


It's invisible, silent and dangerous. No, it's not a ghost or goblin; it's lead dust. If this dangerous dust turned green for a moment, you'd be terrified at the sight of your children covered from head to toe in the scary stuff.

    There is good cause to be frightened. Lead poisoning is the number one environmental health threat to children under the age of 6. It can result in reduced IQ, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hyperactivity and increased aggression.

    Data from the latest Environmental Heath Coalition pilot program shows the risks of lead poisoning are high in at least two San Diego County communities: Sherman Heights and National City. Samples collected in the 39 homes inspected to date as part of the program show:

  • Thirteen of the 16 homes with children under the age of 6 exceed federal and state guidelines for lead content in at least one area;
  • Thirty of the 39 homes, or 77 percent, exceeded lead standards in at least one sample;
  • Seven homes exceeded standards in two areas, 11 homes exceeded standards in three areas, and one home exceeded standards in four areas.

    “So far, data from the lab is confirming what we all suspected: homes and paint in poor condition, lots of lead hazards, and many children being exposed to these,” said Leticia Ayala, coordinator of the Lead-SALTA project. EHC and its community Lead-SALTA Promotoras (Health Promoters Taking Action to Eliminate Lead Poisoning) launched pilot programs in Sherman Heights and National City to assess the extent of the lead problem in their communities.

Promotoras take action


    In 1998, EHC conducted blood lead screening for children younger than age 6 in Sherman Heights and National City. These communities are suspected “hot zones” for lead poisoning because of numerous sources of lead found there, including deteriorated lead-based paint, leaded pottery and leaded dust and soil. Nineteen percent of the children screened had elevated blood lead levels.

    It's no surprise children from low-income families are five times more likely to suffer from lead poisoning. Minority children are disproportionately affected. In San Diego County, approximately 100 children a year are reported with elevated blood lead levels and 84 percent of these children are Latino. However, not all at-risk children are being tested, and of those tested, not all levels are being reported.

    Lead poisoning has no obvious symptoms, and many children in these communities have no health care insurance. Without the screening, the poisoning of these children and their siblings would have gone undetected, as it has for millions of children across the country. The good news is lead poisoning is entirely preventable.

    EHC's Promotoras, nine in each community, successfully completed training given by EHC's Community Organizers on how lead impacts health and how to reduce lead exposure. They learned the role of proper nutrition, discussed tenant rights and developed the skills to conduct a lead home inspection and take actual samples of paint chips, soil, and dust.

    The Lead-SALTA promotoras used their newly-acquired skills to assess and evaluate the extent of lead problems in National City and Sherman Heights.

    As part of the pilot program, Promotoras thoroughly inspected more than 20 homes in each community. To ensure the project would be credible and scientific, the inspected homes were randomly selected. Ayala, who passed the state's rigorous lead inspector/risk assessor exam and was certified last year, monitored the inspections.

Prevention begins at home


    As a first step toward reducing lead in their communities, Promotoras made changes within their own homes. They replaced aging miniblinds that contained lead, stopped using leaded pottery and are taking their own children and husbands for lead screening. The Promotoras now are spreading the word to their neighbors, friends and family about childhood lead poisoning prevention. In fact, since making the health and housing connection, Promotoras are identifying more and more housing and structural problems.

    Promotora Alma Pillado of National City stopped the work of one local contractor after she became concerned about dust spewing from his demolition site drifting into neighboring homes. In Sherman Heights, Promotora Maria Radilla has been inviting her friends and neighbors for a home inspection, during which she explains in-depth all that she has learned.

    Knocking on the doors of the selected homes was a time consuming but rewarding process for the Promotoras. Unfortunately, some families at first were hesitant to talk with the Promotoras because they felt intimidated and threatened by their landlords. But once assured that all information and results are completely confidential, they usually welcomed the Promotoras into their homes. Often, this was the first time parents had heard about lead poisoning.

    “It is a great feeling to walk into a house with a lot of children and know that the information that we have shared with them will hopefully prevent more health damages,” said Luz Palomino, an EHC community organizer.

    “We're extremely grateful to the families that have opened their homes for a free Community Lead Home Inspection,” said Ayala.

How big is the problem?


    Patricia Hernandez, another National City Promotora, discovered firsthand the deplorable conditions that exist in much of San Diego's low- and moderate-income housing. She currently is house hunting and having a difficult time. Every time she walks into a house, she uses her new skills to visually inspect the house. She often finds problems with both the paint and house condition.

    California's housing stock is the third oldest in the nation and, unfortunately, low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with people of color tend to have poorly maintained housing units. Many neighbors and friends of the Promotoras and participating families have requested home inspections.

Put your money where your mouth is

    Data regarding the extent of lead hazards collected from this pilot program will be used to advocate for adequate funds and resources to stop lead poisoning. True prevention can happen only by permanently eliminating the main culprits of lead poisoning, specifically lead paint and dust. This could be very costly.

    This year, San Diego County will gain $49.9 million as a result of Proposition 10, which placed a tax on tobacco products, designating that the funds be used to promote the health of children under age 5. San Diego County formed the Children and Families Commission to distribute this money. We strongly agree with the vision of Commission that, “all children will thrive in supportive, nurturing and loving environments, enter school healthy and ready to learn, and become productive, well adjusted members of society.” But lead poisoning is impeding this vision.

    Childhood lead poisoning is tied to behavioral problems that prevent teens from becoming productive, well-adjusted members of society. According the US Department of Health and Human Services, 11 to 37 percent of arrested delinquents have been found to have had chronic low-level lead exposure.

    EHC is asking the Prop. 10 Commission to do the following:

  • Designate funds to reduce the number of children being expose to lead, making them less ready for school;
  • Ensure that all San Diego residents have access to information regarding lead hazards in housing;
  • Make blood lead testing as routine as immunizations;
  • Make adequate funding available for hazard controls; and
  • Create a housing registry for potential buyers and renters.

    The Lead-SALTA program is a project of Environmental Health Coalition's Toxic-Free Neighborhoods Campaign. For more information on this or other programs, contact EHC at (619) 235-0281 or log onto