City tackles lead paint threat with $4 million grant

City tackles lead paint threat with $4 million grant

WOONSOCKET – The city of Woonsocket is ready to launch a new offensive on lead-based paint hazards with the help of $4 million in federal aid.

The grant, announced in September, is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Lead Based Paint Hazard Control program. The funds will be distributed by the city and community partners to renters and homeowners to fund lead remediation projects in private homes.

Last week, local officials and members of the state’s U.S congressional delegation gathered at Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center to discuss the program. Sen. Jack Reed, who helped steer federal lead abatements funds to Rhode Island as a member of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, spoke alongside Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman David Cicilline about the need for lead remediation.

“Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” said Reed. “You fix a problem at the low cost of renovation that will not develop into a lifelong multimillion dollar healthcare problem.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 535,000 children under the age of 6 are affected by lead poisoning nationwide. In Rhode Island, 6.1 percent of the incoming 2020-2021 kindergarten class tested positive for elevated blood lead levels, according to data gathered by Rhode Island Kids Count.

For children exposed to lead before the age of six, the health impacts can be lifelong. Children with lead poisoning are seven times more likely to drop out of high school and can also develop neurological and other health problems.

Dr. Jeanne Ziter, a pediatrician at Thundermist Health Center, said she comes across children with health issues from lead exposure in her work. Often, in young children, the symptoms present as learning disabilities and uncontrollable anger problems.

“The frustrating thing is to then watch these very healthy children develop long-term complications that are going to affect their lives and know we could’ve prevented this,” she said.

Since 1978, cities with older housing stock, including Woonsocket, have struggled to address the large number of homes in their communities containing lead paint. Ziter said the problem tends to concentrate in areas where these pre-1978 homes are prevalent.

Under the new grant, income-eligible homeowners and landlords will be able to apply for federal funds for lead remediation projects. The program aims to target 200 private housing units within five years. At the same time, a second, $1 million grant awarded in August will target lead hazards in public housing.

Bianca Policastro, a consultant working with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, noted that lead can be tracked into homes from other sources, including jewelry and work clothes.

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt can affect homes beyond low-income neighborhoods, including in historic homes in other neighborhoods. The city, she said, needs to make sure families from all backgrounds, communities and ethnicities are aware of the concerns.

“We are going to prove that this can happen, and we are going to prove to others that get an award in the future, if we can do it here, then they can do it there,” she said.