Why is poor enforcement or implementation of lead poisoning prevention laws a problem?

Communities with protective lead poisoning prevention policies will not see improvement in lead poisoning rates if the laws “on the books” are not enforced. Lack of enforcement can be particularly frustrating for lead poisoning prevention advocates because the mechanisms to address the problem seem to be in place, but the policies are not working.  


What’s the solution?

Solving the problem of a lead poisoning prevention program that is not being implemented or enforced will be case-specific, depending on the particular barriers a community faces.  Several organizations, such as the National Center for Healthy Housing or Changelab Solutions, can provide case-specific support to communities looking to improve implementation or enforcement of their lead poisoning prevention programs.

One important tactic can be bringing attention to the problem of lack of enforcement.  There are several ways to do this. Advocacy groups can do reports, or the media can use its coverage and investigative reporting to draw public attention to the lack of enforcement.  Examples include:

  •  media coverage of Newark’s lead poisoning enforcement failures, 
  • advocate reports on how New York City had gone 14 years without a single enforcement action on the private lead inspection law.

Another way to bring attention to the problem of lack of enforcement is to require the city agency or department in charge of enforcing the lead laws to provide regular reports to the city council or mayor on the number of registries, inspections, enforcement actions, fees, and fines collected. Rochester, New York’s requirement for regular reports has been a key factor in their program’s success.

Another key approach is ensuring that cities have administrative enforcement ability rather than requiring enforcement to go through the court system.  Where cities can issue tickets, enforcement can happen quicker and without relying on a court judgment, which often takes months. For this approach to work, the agency and staff charged with enforcing the lead laws should have a culture of understanding the importance of the laws to children in the community and should be dedicated to seeing lead poisoning eradicated.

For communities where lead enforcement takes place through the court system, getting buy-in from the city prosecutors to bring lawsuits against landlords can be an effective tool in a lead poisoning program. For example, city prosecutors in Columbus, Ohio brought suit against more than 50 landlords for failing to address lead hazards. 

In some cases, there may be a potential lawsuit against the city for failing to enforce lead poisoning protections. Overwhelmed by the number of children with elevated blood lead levels, the city of New Haven, Connecticut had suggested that it had discretion to address lead hazards in homes where children had elevated blood lead levels.  Plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against the City of New Haven for failing to inspect, enforce abatement, and develop a lead management plan for the apartments of two lead-poisoned primary child plaintiffs.   In response, the City of New Haven changed its lead ordinance to mandate that the city “shall” take all necessary actions to make determinations about lead paint hazards and to order the abatement of such hazards when a child has an elevated blood lead level.