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EPA Administrator Announces $250,000 to Reduce Lead Poisoning in Rhode Island; Program Unveiled as Part of Agency's "Children First" Initiative for New England

Release Date: 11/21/2000
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1008

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Office today announced a $250,000 lead abatement program in the State of Rhode Island as part of its kickoff of a new $1.2 million children's health initiative for the six New England states.

"At a time of unparalleled prosperity all across the country, it is unacceptable that there are still thousands of children in Rhode Island and New England afflicted by lead poisoning, mercury poisoning and bouts with asthma," said Mindy S. Lubber, regional administrator of EPA's New England Office, who announced the "Children First" initiative at the Mary T. Dean Day Care Center in Pawtucket.

Unveiled this fall at cities across New England, the "Children First" initiative is aimed at protecting children from environmental threats in the places where they spend most of their time - in school, at home and outdoors. The program includes $750,000 in new investments to combat lead poisoning in New England cities; $200,000 to improve air quality and reduce toxic exposure at 200 schools; and $225,000 in programs to curb skyrocketing asthma rates.

Another $100,000 in grants were made available to broaden opportunities for environmental education in classrooms around New England and a new "Showcase Schools" initiative in which one school in each of the New England states will be selected to showcase numerous EPA programs available to make schools safer for children.

"Pollution is unhealthy for everyone, but it is particularly threatening to children whose bodies are small and growing," said Lubber, who has formed a Children's Health Team comprised of a dozen EPA staff members to work on the initiative. "Our society cannot stand still when 3,500 kids in Rhode Island are suffering from lead poisoning and our hospital emergency rooms are being flooded with small children suffering from asthma."

EPA announced as part of its initiative $250,000 to bring its "Lead Safe Yards" program to Rhode Island. The award-winning program, piloted in Boston, aims to reduce lead exposure from soils by providing on-the-spot lead testing for homeowners along with training in low-cost remediation techniques. The Rhode Island initiative is funded from EPA's EMPACT (Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking) program, and will be administered by the RI Housing and Mortgage Finance Corp. It will concentrate on small daycare centers, with a goal to perform testing and cleanups at 25 to 30 sites. "Rhode Island is making progress reducing childhood lead poisoning, but we must do more and it will require creative, cost-effective programs like Lead Safe Yards," Lubber said.

Today's news conference included Rhode Island medical leaders and government officials: US Senator Jack Reed; Dr. Robert Burke, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Brown University School of Medicine and the Childhood Lead Intervention Clinic at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket; Dr. Patricia Nolan, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health; and Jan Reitsma, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

"Damage to the health of our kids caused by environmental dangers such as lead hurt our entire community," said Senator Reed. "Research shows that lead poisoned children are seven times more likely to drop out of high school and six times more likely to have reading disabilities. And it costs an average of $10,000 more a year to educate a lead poisoned child. There are many dimensions to environmental threats to children and I am pleased the EPA is helping Rhode Islanders tackle them in a comprehensive fashion."

"The environmental health of children is in the hands of adults and we should do our utmost to improve the environment in which children grow and develop" said Dr. Robert Burke. After talking about his experiences in treating lead-poisoned children, he added, "It's time to get the lead out, that is, get the lead out of houses, get the lead out of the environment and get the lead out of children."

"Our role is promoting safe and healthy lives in safe and healthy communities" added Dr. Nolan. "Peoples' health and the quality of their environment go hand in hand. When we see 16% of children entering school with a history of lead poisoning, an entirely preventable condition, we know that much more needs to be done. Everyone, including landlords, daycare centers, schools, local and state officials, and federal agencies, needs to play a part in protecting children from lead poisoning and other environmentally-caused health problems. This initiative will help us to be even more successful in the future."

"Protecting children's health from environmental hazards is a high priority for the department, " said DEM Director Jan Reitsma. "We applaud this initiative by EPA to lower children's exposure to lead. For our part, we have streamlined the enforcement of lead paint removal regulations to better protect the public, including children, from exterior lead paint dust and chips. We will continue to coordinate with EPA and the RI Department of Health to lower exposure to lead, as well as mercury and other hazardous materials."

The first prong of the Children First campaign is a Safe Schools Initiative that will focus on making sure all elementary schools and high schools in New England have the safest yards, classrooms and laboratories possible.

Safer Schools

    • Tools for Schools: New England's school buildings suffer from a variety of environmental problems, including poor maintenance and inappropriate products, that make our children ill. Thirty percent of Rhode Island schools reported unacceptable indoor air quality in a 1995 government study. Tools for Schools is already being implemented in 150 New England schools, but only one of those schools - Cranston East High School - is in Rhode Island. EPA recently awarded $10,000 to the Health Department and $25,000 to the Rhode Island chapter of the American Lung Association to boost Rhode Island's participation in its Tools for Schools program. The goal is to bring 10 schools from around the state into the program over the next year.
    • Showcase Schools: One school in each New England state will be offered access to a broad spectrum of EPA programs to ensure clean indoor air, healthier building construction, safer use and storage of chemicals and a study body educated about their environment.
    • Toxics-Free Schools: Schools use chemicals in classrooms, science laboratories and vocational shops as well as in facility maintenance. Toxic chemicals such as mercury are also prevalent in medical equipment, lighting and electrical devices found in schools. A newly formed team of EPA experts will hold workshops and visit high schools and vocational schools to educate teachers and administrators on safer use, storage and disposal of chemicals and equipment.
The Safe Schools initiative is part of a three-part action plan focusing on safer schools, safer homes and safer outdoors for children. Highlights of the safer homes and safer outdoors action plans include:

Healthy Homes

    • Lead Exposure: New England's children are particularly at risk for lead poisoning because the region's older wooden houses often contain lead paint and lead-contaminated yards. Although concentrated efforts have reduced lead poisoning rates in Rhode Island in recent years, more than 3,500 children in Rhode Island still have elevated lead levels in their bloodstream. About nine percent of the 30,000 to 35,000 children screened statewide last year by the Health Department had elevated lead levels. For African American populations and Southeast Asian populations, lead poisoning rates exceeded 20 percent.

      In addition to its Lead Safe Yards program for Rhode Island, EPA New England's enforcement program is making lead paint a priority by creating a team to enforce laws requiring that landlords inform tenants of the presence of lead paint.

      Also this fall, EPA approved a policy change in which residential lead demolition debris is classified as household waste - not as hazardous waste. The policy change, which will substantially reduce the cost of lead abatement work, is already being applied in Boston where the classification change was first negotiated between EPA-New England and Lead Safe Boston.
    • Asthma Reduction: Estimates are that seven to 10 percent of all children in Rhode Island suffer from asthma. The incidence rates are substantially higher among urban children and minority children. The rate of asthma attacks nationally among children has doubled in the last decade, becoming the leading cause of hospitalization of children. EPA New England is funding a program to teach families at home and in health centers how to reduce the risks of asthma attacks. EPA New England also held an Asthma Summit this spring that for the first time drew together federal and state agencies along with private health groups and asthma coalitions to address this issue. The group established an initiative to track asthma rates in children and to promote new building guidelines for healthier indoor spaces.
Cleaner Outdoors
    • Mercury: Mercury exposure can cause irreversible neurological effects for children. Across New England, more than 80 percent of the inland waters have fish too polluted with mercury to eat. EPA New England's Partners for Change Mercury Challenge program is working with the region's hospitals to reduce mercury waste entirely by the year 2003. Thirteen New England hospitals have joined the program, resulting in the elimination of more than 600 pounds of mercury from their waste streams. This fall EPA New England sent letters to all 276 medical facilities in New England, encouraging them to participate in the voluntary program. This year we expect to double and, possibly, triple, participation among hospitals. Recognizing that many children get mercury poisoning because their mothers did not know the risks of eating fish from regional waters, EPA New England is launching a program to teach parents the dangers of mercury and mercury poisoning.
"This Children First agenda will enhance the many great efforts that are already underway around New England to tackle these complex children's health problems," Lubber said. ""Nationally, EPA has undertaken an effort to re-write many of the pollutant standards set for our air, water, land and food safety so that they are protective of children. These two initiatives together will make a big difference improving the lives of New England's children."