DC’s youngest children will be affected by proposed EPA budget cuts

Exposure to lead can be life-threatening for young children. Because their lungs, immune and nervous systems are not fully developed, children under 5 are more sensitive to chemicals and are unable to combat any extensive exposure to these toxins. [1] Contact with unsafe chemicals also dramatically increases a child’s risk of pneumonia, asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases.[2]


Last winter, the District was at the epicenter of a tragic case in which lead-based paint exposure caused a young child to suffer extensive brain damage. The two-year-old girl had continued contact with lead inside of her home, an affordable housing unit on Emerson Street in Northwest DC. Inspectors later examined the apartment and confirmed that it had significant amounts of lead dust and paint chips – on doors, window sills and in the bathtub.[3]


The good news is that federally implemented regulations have been effective in decreasing exposure to harmful chemicals.[4] Unfortunately, proposed federal cuts for FY2018 slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA)[5] funding stream by $3 billion (approximately 30%).[6] Experts believe that if these cuts are approved, the incidence of lead poisoning will increase – and will be most prevalent in low-income urban areas, as families in densely populated areas tend to reside in older housing structures where lead-based paint still exists.[7] As lead paint ages and turns into strips, then chips and finally forms dust, it becomes increasingly dangerous. Even the smallest contact with lead can cause damage to developing brains and nervous systems resulting in irreversible cognitive disabilities and behavior issues. Early exposure to lead is also associated with poor academic performance. [8]


The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that more than ½ million pre-school aged children nationwide currently have high enough blood lead levels to require medical management.[9] Because lead is so dangerous and traces of it can be difficult to detect in early stages[10], it is crucial that children receive preventative blood screening tests. To raise awareness around the required lead screenings for young children in the District, the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the Department of Healthcare Finance (DHCF) jointly run the, “Every Child. Twice by Two” campaign. Through various social media and outreach methods, the campaign is spreading the crucial message that children, required by District law, must have two lead screenings before the age of two. It’s difficult to know the impact of this campaign, but data from DHCF shows that lead screening rates in DC have remained steady and above the national average for the last three consecutive years.[11] Additionally, DC children are significantly more likely to be screened for lead at the appropriate ages when compared to the rest of the country.[12]


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Our leaders and policymakers must promote health equity by implementing policies and programs that proactively work to ensure healthy development and quality of life for all District children. Though publicly available data on lead-based paint in DC is limited, in 2016, DC Water increased their transparency by creating an interactive map identifying locations of lead pipes. This map covers residences, restaurants, schools and stand-alone water fountains; the data is based on a combination of inspections, consumer reports and historical data. This map makes it clear that the presence of lead piping is still a persistent issue for the District.


It’s also worth noting that the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017, was signed into law in September. The original legislation required officials at District schools, public charter schools and Department of Parks and Recreation facilities to label all water sources with a unique bar code. The law specified that filters certified for reducing lead would be installed and maintained at each of these locations. Finally, the bill required annual lead testing at each source and, if the lead/water concentration exceeded the one part per billion (1 ppb) standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016[13], the source would be shut off within 24 hours. Results of this test would be publicly shared in addition to the planned steps for remediation. Before becoming law, the bill was amended, and the acceptable water lead concentration levels were raised from 1ppb to 5ppb.[14]


While DC is taking extensive efforts to reduce contact with lead, exposure to it disproportionately affects children of color and contributes to health disparities that begin early in life.[15] As the EPA budget cuts are still looming, DC must remain dedicated to protecting its residents. We need to continue raising awareness about the dangers of lead, disseminating screening information and passing legislation that protect our residents from its damaging effects. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, let’s keep making strides towards achieving a city where all housing is safe and affordable, and water is clean for every single DC child and their family.



[1] Buka, I., Koranteng, S., & Osornio-Vargas, A. (2006). The effects of air pollution on the health of children. Pediatrics and Child Health, 11, 513 – 516.

[2] Berry, D. (2017). Early childhood health disparities, biological embedding, and life-course health. In E. Votruba-Drzal & E. Dearing (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Early Childhood Development Programs, Practices, and Policies. (pp. 35-65). Wiley-Blackwell: Malden, MA.

[3] McCoy, T. (2017, January 30). Washington’s worst case of lead poisoning in decades happened in a home sanctioned by housing officials. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/washingtons-worst-case-of-lead-poisoning-in-decades-happened-in-a-home-sanct….

[4] Gauderman, W.J., Urman, R., Avol, E., Berhane, K., McConnell, R., Rappaport, E., &…, Gilliland, R. (2015). Association of improved air quality with lung development in children. The New England Journal of Medicine, 372, 905 – 913.

[5] The federal organization responsible for monitoring lead contamination.

[6] Meyer, R. (2017, May 24). What does Trump’s budget mean for the environment? The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/05/trump-epa-budget-noaa-climate-change/527814/.

[7] Cabrera, Y. (2017, April 6). EPA to cut programs that keep children safe from lead. Think Progress. Retrieved from: https://thinkprogress.org/epa-to-cut-programs-that-keep-children-safe-from-lead-ccbe32f49363.

[8] Zhang, N., Baker, H.W., Tufts, M., Raymond, R.E., Salihu, H., & Elliott, M.R. (2013). Early childhood lead exposure and academic achievement: Evidence from Detroit Public Schools, 2008 – 2010. American Journal of Public Health, 103, e72 – e77.

[9] The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2016). With no amount of lead exposure safe for children, American Academy of Pediatrics calls for stricter regulations. Retrieved from: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/With-No-Amount-of-Lead-Exposure-Safe-for-Children,-American-Academ….

[10] Nunez, E., & Molloy, A. (2017, August 15). Schools fail lead tests while many states don’t require testing at al. The Center for Public Integrity. Retrieved from: https://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/15/21076/schools-fail-lead-tests-while-many-states-don-t-require-testing-all.

[11] Department of Health Care Finance (DHCF). 2017. Children’s preventive service utilization: FY 2010 – 2016 Trend analysis. Division of Children’s Health Services. Presentation, data not publicly available.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2016). With no amount of lead exposure safe for children, American Academy of Pediatrics calls for stricter regulations. Retrieved from: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/With-No-Amount-of-Lead-Exposure-Safe-for-Children,-American-Academ….

[14] While research has shown that water with lead levels greater than 5 ppb have been associated with a 1-point rise in children’s blood lead levels, concentrations below 5 ppb are considered safe, for now, by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

[15] Jones, R.L., Homa, D.M., Meyer, P.A., Brody, D.J., Caldwell, K.L., Pirkle, J.L., & Brown, M.J. (2009). Trends in blood lead levels and blood lead testing among US children aged 1 to 5 years, 1998 – 2004. Pediatrics, 123, 1 – 13.