Levels of lead in Philly, state need addressed

Philadelphians live with lead in their air and soil years after scientists warned this heavy metal is unsafe.

Some contamination is unavoidable, but steps can be taken to protect public health.

Even small amounts of lead can stunt children’s neurological development. Lead may come from paint in an older house or apartment, dust in blowing the wind, or water or soil in a backyard.

As part of their Toxic City series, reporters Wendy Ruderman, Barbara Laker, and Dylan Purcell tested soil in 114 parks, backyards, playgrounds, and other locations, including stoops and sidewalks, in Kensington, Port Richmond, and Fishtown, which once hosted a high concentration of lead smelters.

Three of every four sites tested had hazardous lead levels.

Harder to find was a government entity that accepts full responsibility for protecting children living in the formerly industrial neighborhoods.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has some jurisdiction over construction that might disperse lead, but the EPA hasn’t met its responsibility. And it probably won’t.

With President Donald Trump proposing a 32 percent cut in the EPA’s budget and pollution enabler Scott Pruitt at its helm, that agency is in a nosedive.

That means the city and state must address lead contamination. But the city lacks jurisdiction over soil contamination and enough inspectors to enforce air quality measures. Meanwhile, the state acts like a passive bystander.

Last year, the city tightened its dust containment rules. But it only required developers demolishing buildings 40 feet or taller to get a dust control permit and submit a dust abatement plan before demolition.

That was mistake. It’s clear now that smaller jobs, including the demolition of rowhouses, which has become increasingly common in the changing river wards, must be subject to regulation too. With a mere four inspectors, the city can do little more than respond to complaints now. It needs to increase the size of that staff.

The investigative reporters said contractors didn’t always know their work was spewing lead-laden dust on surrounding properties.

But controlling dust shouldn’t be too heavy a burden. Contractors just need to hose down sites or use equipment with a vacuum to suck up particles. Some won’t do that, though, if they know they aren’t being monitored.

The EPA requires contractors renovating pre-1978 housing stock to be schooled in safe work practices when lead is found and to keep the contaminated building’s owners informed. But the EPA doesn’t require informing neighbors.

That means the city needs to fill that information gap.

It should require contractors to show proof of EPA certification and to inform both building owners and neighbors of work that could disturb lead paint and lead-infused soil. A dust containment plan should be required before granting a building permit.

The city is considering dust abatement classes for contractors and requiring cloth-covered fences around work sites to keep dust from blowing into nearby yards.

Those steps make sense.

Ultimately, it’s up to Philadelphia to protect its children. If that means making contractors pay higher fees to cover the cost of monitoring construction to limit lead contamination, then so be it.