Pennsylvania comes up short on funding for lead testing and cleanup

    Swabs to check lead levels line a table outside of an event where Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders

    Swabs to check lead levels line a table outside of an event where Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders

    Nearby states outspend Pennsylvania when it comes to lead.

    Before Flint, Michigan’s water crisis brought lead back to the fore, many people thought lead poisoning was an issue of the past. But it still affects thousands of children each year in Pennsylvania alone, yet funding for lead testing and abatement has declined.

    Federal lead abatement programs have lost 43 percent of their funding since 2003, according to The New York Times. And the Centers for Disease Control has cut funding for blood testing by half since 2009.

    With federal dollars quickly disappearing, it seems that major investment in lead — whether that’s testing, treatment or abatement — will likely have to come from state coffers. And in that regard, Pennsylvania is not keeping up with the neighbors.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor


    Pennsylvania spends $2 million a year on the lead issue. That money goes towards a hotline that answers questions and a team of community health nurses that respond to cases of elevated blood lead levels. There is no state-level funding for lead remediation, meaning individual homeowners or landlords have to pay for the treatment themselves.

    The commonwealth has felt the effects of those federal funding cuts. After years of receiving grants from the EPA, HUD and the CDC, Pennsylvania currently has no federal funding for lead testing or abatement. Some individual cities still receive funding for that.

    “If there is [a grant with] lead in the name, you can be sure the Department of Health will be looking to apply for it,” said Loren Robinson, deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention at the state Department of Health.

    Despite major cutbacks in federal funding, Robinson says that continues to be the best source for finding additional dollars to put towards lead.

    Pennsylvania is not a mandatory testing state, meaning children are not required to be tested for lead. In 2014, 14 percent of children under the age of 7 were tested. Robinson thinks that could be a low-cost step to improving the lead risk in Pennsylvania — lead testing is covered by most insurance and Medicaid. That’s where the Department of Health intends to focus their energy going forward, since it does not seem like additional funding is going to soon appear.

    New Jersey

    New Jersey’s lead risk looks fairly similar to Pennsylvania’s: the two states have a similar proportion of homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. But while New Jersey’s population is only about 70 percent the size of Pennsylvania’s, the state’s lead spending dwarfs that of the commonwealth next door.

    The New Jersey Department of Health puts $11 million a year towards the community health workers program, which provides resources and strategies to reduce lead exposure to children with confirmed elevated blood lead levels.

    The Department of Community Affairs spends $7 million a year on home inspections for lead risks. An additional $3.79 million in “state, federal and other funding” will be put towards lead protection programs in 2017, according to Brian Murray, spokesman for Governor Chris Christie’s office.

    When Hurricane Sandy destroyed thousands of homes, New Jersey used federal grant money to deal with the elevated lead risk. A $5.4 million federal grant was used for lead testing, lead prevention training for inspectors and educating healthcare providers about lead poisoning.

    While the state does put a lot of funding towards lead, there’s actually supposed to be a lot more. The state found a creative way to fund lead poisoning prevention, but hasn’t used that money as planned. In 2004, the state diverted all sales tax on paint into a fund that was supposed to assist with the cost of lead paint abatement — up to $154 million over 10 years.

    A 2014 investigation by the Asbury Park Press found that less than $24 million had been put towards the fund, with the rest of the money (at least $50 million) diverted into the state’s general fund. Some of the funding was supposed to relocate lead-poisoned children to lead-safe homes while renovations were being done, but relocations stopped in 2012.

    According to the Asbury Park Press, there is legislation currently being considered that would put $10 million towards the lead fund. Christie has promised to veto it, saying the issue is “over-dramatized” and that there is already plenty of funding going towards the lead issue.


    In 2003, while modifying state laws to reflect federal regulations about lead contractors, Ohio created a Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund. Unlike New Jersey and its paint tax, however, Ohio chose a funding source that didn’t produce any funding — fees assessed against contractors who violated lead safe building practices. Since 2003, the fund has accumulated exactly zero dollars.

    That’s not to say Ohio hasn’t put money towards lead poisoning prevention. Melanie Amato, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health, said in an email that the state puts $3.8 million a year towards the issue. That’s nearly twice what Pennsylvania invests.

    But that money isn’t enough to help cities with an extremely high lead risk, like Cleveland. According to, the city is currently dealing with a backlog of families with lead poisoning that need a home inspection. Until recently, the city had one lead investigator to deal with up to 400 toxic homes a year.

    Cities and municipalities in Ohio receive $7 million a year in federal funding for lead, sidestepping the state. But Cleveland lost a federal lead remediation grant due to poor performance, according to The New York Times.

    Ohio, like Pennsylvania, doesn’t have a mandatory testing law; in 2014, approximately 22 percent of children under the age of six were tested for lead.

    Lead funding, post-Flint

    The city of Flint, Michigan has received $28 million in state aid and could receive more than $100 million in federal aid. A lot of that money will have to go towards immediate public health concerns, but some will be invested in long-term infrastructure and housing improvements. The city that was nearly ruined by lead could also be one of the first cities to remove all lead pipes, and maybe one day, lead paint.

    That’s a dream that seems out of reach for Pennsylvania, particularly at $2 million a year.

    “Just for the amount of confirmed elevated blood lead levels in 2015, we would need anywhere between $12 and $24 million to abate the lead [in the homes] of the kids in just that year,” said Robinson. “It’s a lot of money.”

    But not out of proportion to what some neighboring states are spending.



    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal