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If Philadelphia wants to protect kids from lead, it should join lawsuits against paint companies | Opinion

The only way Philly can get rid of lead paint is to sue the manufacturers who sold it.

Six-year-old Dean Pagan with his family outside Comly Elementary School, where he was severely lead poisoned.
Six-year-old Dean Pagan with his family outside Comly Elementary School, where he was severely lead poisoned.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia has spent plenty of time talking about the danger of lead poisoning. It's time to do more and sign onto the only way to actually pay for the high costs of cleaning up lead: a lawsuit against lead paint companies. The Pennsylvania Apartment Association East (PAA East), the region's leading advocate for property owners, management, and renters, is proud to join with everyone else in the state trying to do just that.

It is well established that lead can cause serious health problems and that young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. The Inquirer's "Toxic City" series provided vivid details about how Philadelphia's history as a manufacturing hub has left playgrounds, parks, and building sites in some of our poorest and fastest-growing neighborhoods with dangerous levels of lead in the soil.  We also know that too many schools are plagued by crumbling lead paint-covered walls — the Inquirer's story about a child eating lead paint flakes so as to not be scolded for a messy desk is heartbreaking. It's no secret that too many buildings, including unregulated and unlicensed rental units, likely have lead paint on the walls from decades ago.

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What's not clear, however, is how we will address these problems, clean up, and otherwise remediate the lead, and make Philadelphia safer. That is why the recent campaign by Pennsylvania counties to help communities across the commonwealth do more than talk about lead, and instead find a way to pay for necessary cleanup and remediation, deserves more support.

In recent months, counties across the region have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers of lead paint. The concept behind the suit is simple: Much as tobacco companies knew their product was unsafe yet sold it anyway, paint companies sold lead-based paint for decades despite allegedly knowing of its dangers. Because the paint companies profited while poisoning communities, they should pay to mitigate the damages, just as tobacco companies have done.

Philadelphia has not joined the lawsuit. Instead, there are proposals under discussion in City Council that would address only a portion of the problem — lead paint in older buildings, particularly rental units — but do not delineate funding for inspections or remediation. Not only would these approaches increase taxpayer costs for inspections — if enacted, they would decrease the supply of affordable housing. According to a study by Anderson Economic Group and cosponsored by PAA East this year, if property owners have to pay for lead paint remediation, those costs could be passed on to tenants by rent increases of up to $400 a month. In some neighborhoods, the higher rents will make housing all but out of reach for too many people. At a time when Philadelphia faces an affordable housing crisis, it is unwise and counterproductive to enact a policy that would likely make tens of thousands of housing units unaffordable. It's also unclear that these proposals would do anything to address the problem of lead in the soil or in classrooms.

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That's why we believe that Philadelphia should file a similar lawsuit to the ones brought by neighboring counties. Any recovery from the paint companies should be used to remediate properties where children 6 and under live. This solution will help keep rents lower, while at the same time allowing for limited funds to go toward our schools and neighborhood cleanup. The more local governments that file against lead paint companies, the more pressure those companies will feel to move toward a resolution.

We all want to help eliminate lead poisoning for the children of Philadelphia. By filing its own lawsuit, the city can finally have the resources to do more than talk — and actually lead — on lead.

Brianna Westbrooks is government affairs manager for Pennsylvania Apartment Association East.