HUD and EPA are Collaborating to Better Address Lead Contamination

New agreement to identify HUD housing at risk of Superfund-related lead contamination

Julián Castro
Jan 13, 2017 · 4 min read

My guiding principle as HUD Secretary is that where a child grows up should never dictate where she ends up. That’s why I’ve called HUD the Department of Opportunity. But equal opportunity needs protecting. Children need protecting.

The housing opportunities that HUD helps to provide should be safe. Period. That’s why we have such strong regulations for HUD-assisted housing, including regulations that protect kids from lead poisoning, a totally preventable disease that can lead to permanent health and developmental challenges in children.

All America was horrified by the news of Flint, Michigan’s intolerable levels of lead in its water.

But more recently, we learned that residents of a public housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana were also at risk of lead poisoning, in this case in the soil, due to the complex’s location near the former site of a lead smelter, a location that the Environmental Protection Agency had declared a toxic Superfund site.

While the circumstances were different, the concern and the impact were the same: no child should be exposed to lead in either their drinking water or their backyard.

So I directed our team to work at breakneck speed to get the residents into safe homes. We worked with the local government and housing authority, as well as with the EPA, to move the residents, prioritizing families with young children, who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning. It was no small feat: HUD cut a normally four-month-long process down to one week and approved $1.9 million dollars for moving vouchers for every resident at the complex.

We moved nimbly, but we wondered: Could we do even better? Our collaboration with EPA was critical to helping the residents of this community. We recognize that even closer communication and coordination earlier in the process could have helped us be better prepared to assist the residents of West Calumet.

In that spirit, HUD and EPA have agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding to identify, test, and remediate, where necessary, public housing complexes that are at greatest risk for this same type of health concern. In short, we’re going to be proactive and collaborative.

First, HUD will identify which public housing complexes and HUD-assisted homes are within close range of a still-active Superfund site, a list provided by EPA. Once those units are identified, HUD will begin testing the soil around the homes for lead. Finally, when testing is complete, a process that usually takes three months, HUD will communicate the results to the public and work with EPA and other federal and state partners to make the location safe for residents.

The MOU guides how HUD and EPA will work together in the future to act quickly on behalf of residents’ safety. Broadly, we’ll do a better job of communicating agency-to-agency regarding environmental review processes. For example, when EPA designates a Superfund site to its National Priorities List, they’ll inform HUD and HUD will analyze the potential impacts on its residents. Both agencies will share data. And together we’ll keep residents of affected properties apprised of the progress in making their homes safe.

All of this is to ensure that we will be better prepared to respond the next time a community is confronted with a lead emergency. Wherever lead poisoning is a concern, HUD and EPA will work together to protect the residents and resolve the hazard so that folks can live in a healthy, safe environment and kids can have equal opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. It can stunt a child’s intellectual development, lead to nervous system damage, speech and language problems, developmental delays, and even seizures and unconsciousness. And once a child has been exposed, there is no way to reverse the damage that has been done.

For 25 years, HUD has been the leader in combating lead poisoning in both federally-funded homes and other low-income homes across the country. We have awarded billions of dollars in grants to communities to identify and control lead-based paint hazards, and have eliminated lead hazards from hundreds of thousands of low-income homes across the country. This work has yielded crucial progress for children. According to a recent study, children living in federally supported housing have about 20 percent lower blood lead levels on average, than children in low-income families living in homes where there is no federal assistance.

This year I asked our team to step up our efforts even further and strengthen our protections against lead poisoning. The result was our Lead-Safe Homes, Lead-Free Kids Toolkit, a comprehensive action plan for both immediate actions and laying out a long-term vision to eliminate lead in homes. The centerpiece of this plan is the new rule lowering the actionable level of lead in a child’s blood to align with the Center for Disease Control’s standard and allow for quicker action to protect children.

Our mission is not just to house people. It is to ensure that every child has a safe and healthy place to call home.

As I prepare to leave my position as HUD Secretary, I’m proud that we have made significant strides to further protect the children who depend on HUD.

This MOU is one step, but it is a critical one and provides a road map to build on this work and continue to strengthen efforts to prevent lead poisoning. We must ensure that the future of our children is never determined by where they come from but rather where they can imagine themselves going.

Julián Castro

Written by

This is the archived account of the former 16th U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (2014–2017).

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