In 1994, Betty Cantley’s baby was poisoned by lead during a home renovation after a house fire in Lorain County.
“I had asked questions about lead in the house, and they said don’t worry about it, as long as you stay downstairs,” Cantley said. “Back then, they said a little dirt won’t hurt. Let me tell you, a little dirt does hurt.”
Early intervention saved Jason from the worst of lead poisoning, but he still has asthma and lifelong problems with his bones. In school, he went through an Individualized Education Program, also known as special education.
Now an adult, Jason is his “normal goofy self.”
“I’m happy the way he is,” Betty Cantley said. “But if we had known back then what we know now, things could have been different.”
Betty Cantley is now an advocate working to keep other children safe from lead poisoning. Cantley said a lot of progress has been made since Jason was poisoned. However, she and others are pushing for state control of certification for lead-safe work practices during home renovations and other activities disturbing lead paint around young children.
The federal rule to set standards and required certification for lead-safe work practices, known as the Renovation, Repair and Painting rule (RRP), is currently enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Advocates believe the state would enforce the rule more effectively.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s budget proposal to bring RRP under state enforcement was axed by Senate Republicans. Cantley doesn’t understand why.
“It’s beyond me,” Cantley said. “It’s gonna cost more to fund these kids on IEP than to make everything nice and safe.”
Progress made and progress yet to be made
The current state budget sets aside $13 million for various lead prevention and intervention programs for the next two years. State oversight of lead-safe work practices in old homes, child care facilities and preschools would cost $650,000, which advocates note is a small slice of the $74 billion state budget. Officials anticipated the program would eventually be financially self-sustaining.
Senate GOP spokesman John Fortney said the program wasn’t needed, as there is already a tremendous amount of funding for lead abatement programs.
“How do you put a price on a child’s head?” Cantley said.
Fortney said state control of lead-safe work practices would also create another level of bureaucracy. The DeWine administration said it wouldn’t add any extra bureaucracy and only shifts control from the federal government to the state.
The number of children in Ohio under age 6 with confirmed elevated lead blood levels has decreased in the past few years, and anti-lead poisoning advocates say they’re grateful for state funding of lead abatement programs but it isn’t enough.
“There shouldn’t be a limit to keeping kids safe from lead hazards,” said Timothy Johnson, a co-chair of the Ohio Lead-Free Kids Coalition. “You can’t un-lead poison a child.”
While lead is hazardous to adults, it is particularly harmful and even deadly to young children. Any level of lead can damage a child’s brain and nervous system, resulting in slowed growth and development.
Out of the 165,832 children tested for lead in 2019, the Ohio Department of Health reported 2.1 percent tested positive for elevated lead levels.
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Lead dust from lead paint in old homes is the No. 1 cause of lead poisoning in children.
“The RRP rule is so valuable because it helps protect kids from exposure to lead paint during the most common activities,” said Gabriella Celeste, co-founder of the Ohio Lead-Free Kids Coalition, a group of 38 organizations. “Right now, the U.S. EPA is falling down on the job. They frankly can’t do it.”
Katie Christy’s child, Leila, was poisoned by lead at 6 months old in 2014 after her ex-husband hired an electrician who wasn’t properly licensed, let alone certified for lead-safe work practices during home repair and renovation. The electrician left lead dust everywhere, including in Leila’s bedroom.
Christy didn’t see anything abnormal about her daughter’s growth until she was in kindergarten. Almost seven years after first being poisoned, Leila still has behavioral problems.
“[RRP is] very important because people now don’t even know lead paint still exists,” Christy said. “When I told Leila’s preschool, the teacher looked at me baffled, like ‘what’s lead paint?'”
Why state oversight is important
A recent report by an affordable housing group found that more than two-thirds of Ohio’s homes were built before 1980 – lead-based paint was banned in 1978. Young children live in 400,000 of those homes.
Advocates say the EPA has been slow to enforce RRP certification in Ohio. From 2019 to 2021, the EPA said they conducted 25 on-site investigations and 33 off-site compliance monitoring inspections. The agency divides its oversight into regions. Ohio is in Region 5, which serves five other states in the Midwest and 35 tribes.
“You’re talking about trying to regulate something across a five or six-state area from one office in Chicago,” said David Thrasher, a lead remediation training manager.
Thrasher used to teach certification for lead-safe work practices but hasn’t since he said the EPA “screwed up all of the training requirements.” However, Thrasher said he would go back to teaching classes if Ohio controls certification as he believes the state would be better at regulating training.
If lead-safe work standards in homes and schools were brought under state control, the effort would be spearheaded by the Ohio Department of Health, which already manages several anti-lead poisoning programs.
“It makes all the sense in the world to allow an agency that is closer to the ground, better equipped and willing to do the work [to control lead-safe work practices],” said Fred Strahorn, former state senator and current executive director of Ohio Healthy Homes Network, an organization promoting safe, affordable housing.
How state control would impact businesses
According to the Ohio Lead-Free Kids Coalition, only about 2,000 out of 80,000 firms in Ohio who should be certified for lead-safe practices actually are. The DeWine administration said certified firms in Ohio are decreasing.
Lyle Plummer Jr., owner of Cleveland-based Lead Locked Renovations, LLC, said lead-safe certification means he has to sacrifice a bit more time and money toward lead-safe work practices. The extra cost of lead-safe practices ends up on the customer’s bill.
Plummer still thinks it’s worth it – he said the training taught him he was probably lead poisoned as a child.
However, Plummer said he doesn’t get undercut by other businesses because of his extra costs, as there aren’t enough lead-safe contractors for the demand. Stronger enforcement of lead-safe certification would mean more competition, but Plummer said there’s enough room for everyone and believes state control is a “good move.”
“I’m really hoping contractors keep an eye on the bigger picture, which is the safety of families,” Plummer said. “Hopefully contractors will start to pursue their renovations in a whole new light and try to take a safer measure, because we think lives are at stake.”
Grace Deng is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.