Weatherization Plus Health: Bringing WAP and Lead Poisoning Prevention Under the Same Tent

— Ryan Ward, Research Analyst, Health Homes Initiative, NASCSP —

With National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week upon us, it is important to note that Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) providers can play a critical role in decreasing the number of childhood lead poisonings year over year. There has been great success in reducing childhood lead poisoning since the ban on the sale of lead paint in 1978. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 500,000 children in the U.S. still have blood lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter, the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

The consequences of lead poisoned children are dire for families and society at large. There is no safe level of lead poisoning, and with no cure, lead poisoning is linked to neurological disorders, impaired growth, reduced IQ, and myriad other negative health outcomes. This human tragedy is preventable, and WAP can play a part. WAP enters more homes than any other low-income housing program in the country and already has a robust health and safety component. WAP is required to work lead-safe, and, with new flexibility provided in Department of Energy (DOE) Health and Safety Guidance 11-6, can test homes for lead.

Testing for lead based paint doesn’t have to open up a Pandora’s Box; rather, it provides an opportunity for WAP agencies to demonstrate how they go the extra mile to ensure the health and safety of low-income families. With coordinated partnerships between hospitals, health departments, and case management services, WAP can refer families with lead paint in their homes to these providers to test blood lead levels. These referrals can help to ensure proper treatment for children who have elevated blood lead levels and client education on proper avoidance strategies for families living with lead paint in their home. Conversely, these programs can refer low-income clients for weatherization services, particularly if there are carbon monoxide or respiratory issues such as asthma that WAP services may be able to mitigate.

One conservative estimate shows that for every $1 spent on lead elimination, we save a total of $17-$221 dollars (see resources). Coordinated efforts with home rehabilitation programs, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development offices, and financial institutions can allow WAP agencies to assist families with children under six years old in securing grants or loans to eliminate lead paint in their homes before it causes permanent damage. Since WAP and lead programs both bring a large return on investment and thus significantly contribute to economic development, partnerships between the two programs are a natural fit.

The Weatherization Plus Health initiative, implemented by the National Association for State Community Services Programs (NASCSP) on behalf of DOE, seeks to facilitate the types of collaborations discussed above for three key reasons: improving health, saving energy, and fighting poverty. The lost potential of children afflicted with lead poisoning is nothing short of tragic, and the only way to eliminate new cases of lead poisoning is through an all-in effort for strategic coordination between all federal low-income housing and health programs. Let’s work together to end new cases of childhood lead poisoning for good.

Resources: Gould, Elise. “Childhood Lead Poisoning: Conservative Estimates of the Social and Economic Benefits of Lead Hazard Control.” Environmental Health Perspective 117.7 (2009): 1162–1167.