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City moves to take the pain out of paint, other school hazards | Editorial

The environmental hazards in our aging infrastructure is one of the key underlying causes of the city's inability to make progress.

Lead paint removal at Clara Barton School
Lead paint removal at Clara Barton SchoolRead moreSchool District of Philadelphia

City Council did the right thing Thursday when it passed a bill that would require the city’s public schools to certify its buildings as “safe from lead-based paint hazards.”

The move is only 40 years behind the times.

It was 1978 when the federal government banned the use of lead paint in residential homes, after it became clear that lead paint presented serious health problems to those exposed to it.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the city started requiring landlords of rental properties built before 1978 to repair conditions like peeling paint that raise the hazards of exposure to lead.

Astonishingly, none of those same protections applied to schools.

The extent of those hazards were highlighted this year in an Inquirer special report, Toxic City: Sick Schools, which found environmental hazards in many of the city’s school buildings, including lead dust and asbestos. Ninety percent of Philadelphia’s schools were built before 1978.

Exposure to lead paint and other hazards leads to serious health problems and cognitive damage. It can impact a child’s ability to learn, as well as his behavior. And the damage can be permanent.

For decades, city leaders and residents have been wringing their hands over inequities in education, high poverty rates, and other ills afflicting many of the city’s families. The environmental hazards that stem from our aging public infrastructure should be considered one of the key underlying causes of the city’s inability to make significant progress. A darker view is that we, by our historical lack of attention to these hazards, should be considered complicit in maintaining this terrible status quo.

And despite this new law, we could continue damaging children if proper enforcement is not part of the city’s plans moving forward. The bill calls for a 90-day window for repairing hazards, after which daily cleaning is required.

The obvious next question is how this will be paid for. Following the original Inquirer report, Gov. Wolf earmarked $7.6 million from the state coffers to clean up lead paint in some city schools, with another $8 million for remediation from the School District’s capital budget.

Such work is expensive, and obviously, much more is needed.

Some believe that in fact, paint companies should be held financially liable for cleaning up the mess created by the manufacture of lead paint. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals from three paint manufacturers which a California court determined were liable for damages stemming from lead paint. The California court ruled that the companies created a public nuisance when they covered up the dangers of lead paint.

This means that the road may be paved for that to happen elsewhere. Perhaps Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has made inroads championing victims of priest abuse and financial scams, should pursue this on behalf of Philadelphia and its children.

One of the marks of the modern age is supposed to be our advanced vigilance of the dangers present in consumer products. Maybe someday, the notion that we created generations of damaged children by exposing them to peeling paint and other environmental toxins may seem quaint. But right now, it’s tragic.