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Older rental properties in Louisville will have to be tested for lead

A grand mansion still stands in Russell.
Rental properties in Louisville built before 1978 will need to be inspected for lead.

Public health officials in Louisville Metro say nearly 10,000 children have tested positive for lead exposure since 2005. Childhood lead exposure can cause long-term cognitive and behavioral issues, including diminished impulse control, lower educational outcomes and stunted growth — so city leaders are trying to limit its impact locally.

Metro Council recently approved an ordinance requiring lead testing in all rental properties built before 1978. Under the ordinance sponsored by Democratic District 8 Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, landlords who own older homes will put their properties on a “Lead-Safe Housing Registry.” A state-certified lead inspector will test for lead paint as part of the registration process.

While the ordinance initially garnered pushback over the potential costs of testing to property owners, Chambers Armstrong said the goal is to ensure all children in Jefferson County are growing up in a safe environment.

“There are thousands of children in our city whose entire futures are being stolen away, in an invisible way, by lead in their environment,” Chambers Armstrong said. “To make sure our children have the ability to have a future, to get an education, to grow, to thrive, to succeed, that should be the single most important thing we are doing as a city.”

City officials say children living in west Louisville, where many residents are low-income and renters, are more likely to be exposed to lead because historic racist policies like redlining have kept many residents in unsafe older homes

The ordinance will not take effect for two years. Louisville Metro’s Public Health and Wellness Department will manage the registry and testing requirements.

Local doctors support more lead inspections

Health officials say exposure to even a small amount of lead, which is a neurotoxin, can harm a child’s developing brain. Children who have regular access to a pediatrician are usually tested for lead levels in their blood multiple times before the age of two.

At a recent Metro Council meeting, a group of four pediatricians spoke in support of the lead abatement ordinance.

Dr. Libby Mims shared her own experience treating a child who had “extremely elevated” lead levels. Using a pseudonym to protect the child’s privacy, Mims said that as one-year-old “Josie” began to walk around the house and become more independent, she started putting lead-based paint into her mouth.

“Her parents had rented an older home and they had no idea the peeling paint on the wall could cause harm,” she said.

Now six years old, Mims said Josie has speech delay, motor delay, ADHD and intellectual disability. She said follow-up testing showed that Josie’s developmental issues were most likely due to lead exposure, which is permanent.

“Josie’s story shows us that we can do more to protect children,” Mims said. “We can require proactive lead testing and remediation before children and families are ever exposed. Her story doesn’t have to be repeated.”

Research shows that children found to have high levels of lead in their blood require up to $5,000 in medical treatment.

Supporters of the lead abatement ordinance also pointed out that there’s a high cost to communities.

A 2009 study found that eachlead-exposed child could cost governments $50,000 annually. Researchers say the negative impacts of lead exposure on impulse control, literacy and educational attainment are correlated with an increased likelihood the child will be involved with the criminal justice system and have worse employment outcomes.

Chambers Armstrong said one of the biggest hurdles to the ordinance was getting local officials to realize lead exposure is still an issue in 2022. She said many people associate the problem with the 1970s or ‘80s, when exposure and public awareness was at its peak.

“But when you start looking, you realize that, sure, we stopped adding new lead into the environment, but the lead that we already added for decades didn’t go away,” she said. “If anything, it’s sort of escaping now into children’s environments and causing as big of a problem as it ever has.”

Officials with Louisville’s Public Health and Wellness department said there are probably more than the official 9,823 children in Jefferson County who tested positive for lead since 2005, because funding for lead screenings decreased in recent decades. Children whose families don’t have regular access to a pediatrician may also go untested.

New regulations on rental properties

The lead abatement ordinance was introduced in April and underwent numerous amendments before passing Metro Council unanimously on Dec. 1.

One of the biggest changes was the creation of an exemption to the lead testing requirement for landlords who have done extensive renovations or repairs to their pre-1978 properties. Landlords who employ someone with a Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Certification can also request an exemption.

Any landlord without an exemption will be expected to register with the Public Health and Wellness Department and have their property inspected by a Codes and Regulations officer. If an officer finds any lead-based hazards, the property owner will have 14 days to get it fixed.

Under the amended ordinance approved by Metro Council, a landlord can choose to completely remove any lead-based paint, or go with a less costly abatement option such as using a special paint to seal in the hazard.

Chambers Armstrong said she thinks the final version of the ordinance balances families’ safety with landlords’ business interests. Lead inspections by someone who is state-certified can sometimes cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the size of the property.

“We’re basically saying, if you can show us that you’re doing the right thing to make sure you aren’t renting an apartment to someone that has an active lead hazard, and we can verify that … in those cases, we’ll give you an exemption,” she said. “However, the second that a child tests positive for lead in your property, you lose that exemption and you have to immediately come into compliance.”

Louisville Metro set aside $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding in April to cover the costs to landlords of getting maintenance employees trained in lead inspection and remediation.

In addition to an initial lead inspection, landlords will have to pay for additional inspections every three years. And they’ll have to provide the inspection findings to city officials, as well as their tenants.

The city’s Code Enforcement officers will prioritize inspecting properties where children are present. Any time a child under the age of six tests positive for elevated lead blood levels during a screening, a landlord will have 14 days to get the property tested again to identify the source of the lead.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.