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The Stimulus Package and SAT Scores

Posted: 02/06/09 04:01 PM ET

A new research study links performance on SAT scores to lead poisoning in the home. In the same week that this research was released, Republican leadership in Washington attacked $100 million allocated for lead paint removal in President Obama's economic recovery package as "wasteful" spending.

The research, which will published later this winter in the journal Environmental Research, demonstrates a link between the fall and rise of the average SAT scores and variation in prevalence of mental retardation to the fall of blood lead levels. It further labels lead paint hazards in the home as the greatest risk for childhood lead poisoning in the United States (More on the study is available at LeadSafeIllinois.org).

Aside from the obvious health benefits, the $100 million proposed for lead removal from homes would accomplish the very objectives that the stimulus seeks -- creating thousands of jobs and reversing the economic impacts for low-income families. The program would remove lead paint from nearly 10,000 apartments and homes and create nearly 3,000 jobs. And at the same time it would protect hundreds of thousands of children from a preventable, and yet devastating disease.

Am I missing something here? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe childhood lead poisoning as the most preventable environmental disease of young children, and yet hundreds of thousands of children are harmed by lead primarily through exposure to contaminated dust and soil from lead-based paint in older housing. Windows are one of the most significant sources of lead poisoning in children because they contain high levels of lead paint, and their use generates lead-contaminated dust. While lead-based paint for residential use is no longer manufactured, layers of old paint are still on the walls and window frames of homes.

An estimated 38 million housing units have lead paint, with 24 million having significant lead hazards in the form of deteriorated lead paint, contaminated dust or contaminated bare soil. More than five million of these units are home to children less than six years old -- the age group most at risk both because of their developing brains and their hand-to-mouth activity. Forty-one percent of low-income housing has lead paint hazards, compared with 18 percent of middle and upper income housing.

At the more common, lower levels, lead poisoning affects cognitive ability, including arithmetic skills, reading, nonverbal reasoning, and short term memory. It causes subtle brain damage resulting in reduced intelligence, learning disabilities, speech disorders, hyperactivity, shortened attention span and behavioral problems. At high levels, lead poisoning causes damage to the child's central nervous system, resulting in coma or even death, in addition to harming the kidneys and reproductive system.

Research also links low levels of lead exposure to juvenile delinquency, with increasing evidence showing that early lead exposure is a risk factor for criminal behavior, including violent crime, in adulthood. The human costs of this disease are devastating and go well beyond medical treatment. They include education and criminal justice costs and the long term economic costs to society of lost productivity and opportunity for today's at-risk children -- tomorrow's workforce.

The $100 million lead abatement program in President Obama's plan will give the country upgraded, affordable housing stock, and at the same time reduce lead poisoning, which will bring down future spending on health care costs, special education, and possibly the juvenile justice system. An important added bonus:

Replacing old windows and frames with Energy Star rated efficient windows would also create energy efficiency, reducing global warming pollution and adding to housing values.

A widespread lead abatement program could be immediately implemented - it is "shovel ready." For over a decade, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has run effective grant programs funding state and local efforts to remove lead hazards in high-risk housing -- but never at a scale that adequately attacks the problem. Yet these grant programs have created a strong base of accredited lead training providers and lead abatement contractors around the country that can be called upon to quickly expand their efforts.

Under a 1968 HUD requirement, lead programs have long been required to hire from within the affected communities to the greatest extent possible and to provide additional training and workforce development services. This is the moment to more strictly enforce these rules to put more people back to work.

Childhood lead poisoning is one of the few causes of social and learning problems we know how to fix. If action is not taken, however, the current rate of childhood lead poisoning means that millions of children will be unnecessarily poisoned in the decades to come. The $100m could not only help jump-start the recovery of our ailing economy, but also end a shameful preventable disease affecting our must vulnerable citizens -- our own children.

How is it that the GOP doesn't get this?

Anita Weinberg is the Chair of Lead Safe Illinois at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law.