Pittsburgh City Council on Monday advanced a proposed ordinance that aims to protect city residents from harmful lead exposure, though council members said the legislation should be considered only the first step in a larger effort.
The measure aims to reduce the number of lead poisoning cases in the city, said Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, who introduced the legislation in late October.
Even small amounts of lead in the blood can be harmful, particularly for children, and no amount of lead exposure is safe, according to the legislation. Symptoms of lead poisoning in children can include impaired memory, decreased academic performance and behavioral disorders. In adults, it can trigger cardiovascular disease, adverse neurological effects, renal damage, thyroid hormone alterations and decreased fertility.
Lead poisoning can also result in irreversible effects like permanent neurological and physiological damage in children and adults.
From 2015 through 2019, 849 children in the city were confirmed to have lead poisoning, representing about 39% of all new cases in Allegheny County.
“It shouldn’t happen to anyone,” Strassburger said. “We have to do everything we can.”
The proposed Pittsburgh Lead Safety Law aims to tackle the most common ways people — and children, in particular — are exposed to lead. It would call for routine inspections of rental homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. If lead is found during an inspection, it must be remedied and the residence reinspected.
The measure also would allow renters and property owners to request lead inspections.
About 80% of the city’s 70,000 rental units predate the ban on lead paint, Councilman Bobby Wilson said.
The city has allocated $2 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to pay for inspections and other elements of the bill, Strassburger said.
She said she would like to see additional funding to help people who may not be able to easily afford making necessary repairs if they discover lead violations.
Councilwoman Deb Gross estimated most fixes could be completed for less than $200.
Gross pointed to lead paint in homes as being one of the most common reasons for lead poisoning. When a child has elevated blood levels, she said, “almost all the time” it is from lead in the home.
“We have to get ahead of that,” she said.
The legislation also calls for all demolitions — both city-funded and private ones — to have permits that require a lead-safe work plan, and demolition sites would be inspected.
Contractors and firms working in spaces built before 1978 would be required to complete lead safety training.
The training would take about eight hours, Strassburger said. Thanks to grants and money raised by local organizations, the training should be free to contractors.
Councilman Anthony Coghill, who is a general contractor, said it seemed like a lengthy time commitment that may not sit well with many contractors.
He added that once a contractor completes the required training, there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure they actually apply lead-safe practices to their work.
“You’re just going to take (a contractor’s) word for it,” he said.
Strassburger said she did not believe City Council had the power to enforce that at this time.
“It’s not a perfect bill,” she said, acknowledging that there are “gaps” in areas such as enforcement. She described the legislation as a good first step.
“This is going to make a tremendous impact,” Strassburger said.
In addition to calling for extra funding to help people make lead repairs, Strassburger suggested that better enforcement protocols also should be considered among the next steps.
By moving ahead with the measure now, despite the need for additional work in the future, council members are paving the way for work on this issue to start sooner, Gross said. She said she’d like to see the measure implemented by the start of next year.
Council members Corey O’Connor, Gross and Wilson have signed on as co-sponsors with Strassburger.
“I think it’s one of the most important bills we’ve done this year,” Wilson said.
Council members unanimously voted to advance the measure Monday. Council members Theresa Kail-Smith and Corey O’Connor were not at Monday’s meeting.
The ordinance could earn final approval as early as next week.