Verdict on Philly’s Lead Court: It works

    Nine years ago, Philadelphia established a specialty court to speed the cleanup of lead hazards in apartments and rented homes.

    Health researchers at Drexel University School of Public Health who studied the program say that it’s working.

    The city’s housing law requires landlords to remove chipping and peeling lead-based paint and vacuum lead dust, but some landlords are slow to fix problems.

    Because living with high levels of lead can hurt a child’s intelligence and organizational ability, pediatrician Carla Campbell said the landlords’ reluctance leaves children at risk.

    “Typically, that dust that’s coming from the paint in the home, that’s settling down on horizontal surfaces like window sills, floors, baseboards, porch rails and then children touch those areas many times a day and ingest little bits of lead dust in the process,” she said.

    Health officials and lawyers established Philadelphia’s Lead Court in 2002.

    Campbell and her colleagues at Drexel studied landlord compliance in the five years before and after the court started. Before the court, landlords fixed problems within the first year about 7 percent of the time. After the court was in operation, that rate rose to about 77 percent.

    “We’re in the business of getting people to understand that law matters to health, and this is a great example of how,”said Scott Burris, director of the Public Health Law Research Program at Temple University, which funded the Lead Court study.

    Burris says before the court, lead cleanup enforcement often dragged on for months or years. Philadelphia officials took an innovative step, he said.

    “Essentially [they] ran a great experiment to see whether, if you had judges who knew what was going on, lawyers who knew what was going on and a process that was especially focused on lead abatement, whether you could improve the time to cleaning up the lead and therefore improve the health of the kids living in those houses,” Burris said. “It was a smashing success.”

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