"A Flaky Deal"

To snare a federal grant, the city of Houston overstated the extent of lead poisoning among children in poor neighborhoods. But now that it's got the money, the city can't figure out how to help those who need it most

The children were tested for lead poisoning last July, during a routine visit to the neighborhood health clinic. Drop-lets of blood from their forefingers were drawn into small tubes and sent off for analysis to a lab at the city of Houston's Department of Health and Human Services.

When the results came back, the children's parents, a young couple raising a family in a 90-year-old house not far from downtown, were shocked: Both the three-year-old girl and the five-year-old boy had tested at more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of whole blood, which by federal standards meant that they had been poisoned. Though neither child showed any outward sign of illness, the dangerous toxin could be damaging their brains and nervous systems at a crucial stage of development.

The blood-lead level of the young boy -- nearly twice the amount considered poisonous -- prompted city health officials to inspect the family's home to identify the source of the problem. The result of that analysis shocked no one: The culprit was lead-based paint, by far the most common cause of lead poisoning in young children.

The family was in luck -- or so they thought. In early 1995, the city health department received more than $3.9 million from the federal government, which, along with another $1.7 million in local funds, was set aside to remove lead from contaminated homes.

The Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, or LBPHCP, is aimed at low-income homeowners with children under the age of six who have tested positive for lead poisoning. The family in the 90-year-old house, which inspectors determined was infested with lead dust from paint around the windows, sills and doors, seemed like an ideal candidate for the program.

But almost a year after the children were found to be poisoned, and more than six months after inspectors identified the source, the family is still waiting for city contractors to remove the lead paint from their house and make it safe.

"We just kind of lost hope with regard to their help," says the children's mother, who asked that the family's name not be used in case city health officials decide to fulfill their promise. "We thought maybe they had just run out of money and shut down or something."

It only appears that way. The LBPHCP is alive, although its performance so far suggests long periods of suspended animation. Two years into the $5.6 million program, the city has performed lead-reduction work on just 22 homes -- less than $100,000 worth of abatement. And city records show that, as of April 10, only 27 additional homes have qualified for lead removal, either through blood screening of preschool children or community outreach.

City health officials have estimated that there are thousands of cases of elevated blood-lead levels among the city's poor, mostly minority children, some of them quite severe. The majority of those cases, health officials believe, are caused by tens of thousands of deteriorating inner city housing units built before 1960, when lead levels in paint were extremely high.

But at its current pace, the LBPHCP will fail to meet its goal to reduce lead-paint hazards in 400 homes by the August 1, 1998 deadline. If that happens, the city could be obligated to return a portion of its $3.9 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It might also hurt the city's chances for additional federal assistance to address what the Centers for Disease Control consider one of the most prevalent -- and preventable -- pediatric health concerns in the United States.

City officials defend the program, pointing out that delays were caused by circumstances out of their control, such as the lack of a state certification program for lead-removal workers. Once that certification was in place, they say, the program was set back again when the city's Department of Housing and Community Development eliminated its housing rehabilitation program.

"This program was intended to be in cooperation with housing and community development," says Mike McDaniel, the LBPHCP project manager. "They were supposed to kick in over $1 million. But when they stopped their rehab program, we had to go to HUD with a new work plan. We're really just getting started on the abatement part of the program."

While symptomatic of other lead removal programs funded by HUD nationwide, bureuacratic hassles don't really explain the overall ineffectiveness of the Houston program. A review of LBPHCP records and interviews with current and former city health workers suggests a rudderless effort that has no clear set of priorities and suffers from duplication of effort and interdepartmental squabbling. Moreover, the program's top manager, McDaniel, has no background in environmental or childhood health. His hiring has all the characteristics of political patronage.

The result has been that many families with children suffering from high blood-lead levels have had to go on living in contaminated houses. Others have had lead paint removed even though their children do not have lead poisoning. And though there is no shortage of contaminated houses, abatement work has been performed on homes where lead paint inspections turned up insignificant amounts of lead.

City health officials are clearly having a hard time directing a sizable federal gift to those who need it most. But there may be a good reason for the failure of the LBPHCP to reach low-income families with lead-poisoned children: To improve their chances of getting the $3.9 million grant, those same city officials may have overestimated the incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Houston.

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