Keynote Remarks by Secretary Julián Castro
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
National Lead Summit
Washington, DC
December 5, 2016

As prepared for delivery:

Thank you for that kind introduction, and for inviting me to this impressive gathering. 

This is a remarkable sight - seeing so many experts, policymakers and advocates in the same room focused on this national challenge.

Just a quick glance at the agenda and the speakers tells you a lot about the potential for new, stronger momentum to end lead poisoning in the next five years is real. I'm more confident than ever that we can achieve this goal.

You and your team have done a terrific job in convening this summit - as well as your effective advocacy over the years. Let's give them a round of applause.

A huge thanks also to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the National Center for Healthy Housing - for your support of this Summit. I'm very grateful for the excellent partners we have.

By committing ourselves to this cause, we've undertaken an urgent and critical challenge.

Many of you are familiar with the basics of the lead problem - but they bear repeating.

According to the CDC, children under five years are exposed to high levels of lead in at least four million homes - through dust, paint chips, or even soil. We know that over a half million children (545,000) in these homes have unsafe levels of lead in their bloodstream. 

The science is clear - there is no safe level of lead in children. Plus, lead exposure usually goes undetected and occurs with no obvious symptoms. Only complete elimination of lead in American homes can solve this problem. 

And the damage caused by lead to these young minds and bodies is insidious. In the bloodstream, it can damage red blood cells. It interferes with absorption of calcium needed for strong bones and teeth, muscles, and nerve and blood vessel functions.

In turn, these can cause nervous system damage, speech and language problems, developmental delays, and even seizures and unconsciousness - problems that stunt the development of far too many children and can condemn them to a life of poor health.

Most tragic of all, these problems are preventable. We know how to prevent lead contamination in homes, and there is no shortage of workable solutions. In fact, our only shortage is the lack of will to end this problem, once and for all.

These are more than enough reasons why this Summit - and our commitment - are so important. That's why we are here today.

HUD is here for the simple reason that every child in our nation deserves a safe and healthy place to live, no matter how much money their parents earn or the neighborhood they grow up in. Period.

In October, our Department observed the 25thanniversary of the creation of the Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes. That was in 1991, when George H. W. Bush was President, and the late Jack Kemp was HUD Secretary.

Since then, HUD has awarded more than $1.58 billion in grants to communities to identify and control lead-based paint hazards. This has helped protect nearly 200,000 low-income families across 45 states from multiples hazards, not just lead contamination. And we've used our enforcement powers to remove lead from another 180,000 homes.

Earlier this year, we announced nearly $100 million in Lead Hazard Control grant funding, as well as over $10 million in healthy homes supplement funding to the Lead Hazard Control awardees. 

We estimate that these grants will reduce lead-based paint hazards in more than 5,600 low-income homes.

In public housing, HUD has long required routine lead paint inspections. The impact of these and other efforts were documented in a joint CDC-HUD study published in the American Journal of Public Health in September. 

The study found that children living in HUD-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. That shows the progress that hard work can accomplish.

To help expand that progress, this Spring we rolled out HUD's Healthy Homes App, which is downloadable by anyone via Apple iTunes and Google Play. In clear language, it enables users to quickly understand potential hazards in their homes and the simple steps to fix them.

One of its major components will connect these residents with early education, nutrition programs, counseling and tutoring to combat the impacts of lead exposure. It can also enable housing advocates to help these residents report potential violations of our lead safety regulations.

But that's not enough, and we all know it. That's why we're renewing our focus on advocacy and assessment.

For example, we've partnered with other federal agencies and local governments to address lead hazards in communities like Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana. 

In both cases, we acted decisively to assess the contamination problems and protect the families living in those conditions. Although many of have been dedicated for years to ending lead poisoning, it sometimes takes a dramatic event like the Flint water contamination scandal to wake up the public to this danger. 

That traumatic event at least had the positive result of renewed efforts in Congress, state and local governments, philanthropies and HUD to ensure that all homes are lead-free and safe for children.

This summer, after months of intense work at all levels of HUD, we released our Lead-Safe Homes, Lead-Free Kids Toolkit. This is comprehensive action plan for both immediate actions and a long-term vision to eliminate lead in homes, including a clearinghouse of information for HUD-assisted residents about lead hazards, safety and their rights.

As part of this plan, we've strengthened our collaboration with other agencies and the private sector, including the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative.  

And we've been improving HUD's process for identifying lead hazards to enable parents to learn about their children's exposure and obtain care more easily and quickly.

For example, during Children's Health Month this year, the DC government hosted a bilingual education and blood testing event at Mary's Center Day Care in Northeast DC.

An even more far-reaching advance of this action plan is the forthcoming release of HUD's final rule that lowers the actionable threshold for blood levels in children to the CDC's current range value of five micrograms per deciliter of lead. 

The HUD threshold had been 20 micrograms for the past 17 years - but the argument for adopting the CDC standard was compelling. This new threshold will trigger an earlier response when a child under six years old is exposed to lead-based paint hazards in HUD-assisted housing. 

The new rule includes prevention efforts, but also requires specific actions if health screening finds an elevated blood lead level. These include: 

  • Within 15 days of learning the child's condition, owners or operators must complete an environmental investigation of the child's home and common areas.
  • Within 30 days, if lead-based paint is the source, interim control measures must be taken to control the hazard.
  • And similar measures must be taken if nearby units housing other children have lead-based paint hazards.

In short, by aligning our standard with the science-based one used by the CDC, we can act more quickly and forcefully to make certain that the homes we support don't damage the health of children living there.

This proposed rule is the centerpiece of HUD's intensified effort to protect our next generation of Americans from this insidious poison. I'm very excited about the broad impact it will have in the years ahead on children's health.

There is much work to be done. The lead dust and soil discovered at the public housing complex in East Chicago was a wake-up call for the American public. HUD went all-out to secure vouchers for the hundreds of residents to move to safer housing.

And my sincere hope is that Congress will take seriously the threat to thousands of American families across our nation who are at similar risk. That should include setting aside dedicated funding for a meaningful response to a lead hazard problem that is undoubtedly much more widespread than we now know.

I'm also proud of the progress we've made in reducing health hazards in HUD-assisted homes in the past several years - and that this Summit signals a stronger momentum for accomplishing the goal to end lead poisoning within five years.

Whatever uncertainties there are about future federal leadership in preventing lead poisoning - including lead hazard control grants - I believe your enduring commitment will produce even more progress.

And here's why: 

  • First, advocacy groups are stronger and more active than ever - keeping this issue before the public and pushing everyone to do better. I'm especially pleased with the work of the Summit team to convene stakeholders like you and strengthen our capacity for decisive action.
  • Because of such broad support for action on lead hazards, it remains a nonpartisan issue at every level of government - in which just about everyone is willing to action.
  • Our grantees have been creative in collaborating with local governments, community leaders, and residents to take, in many cases, strong initiatives to identify and solve lead problems. I'm especially impressed by the greater coordination among local and state health, housing, and environmental agencies.
  • We've also made important advances in the technical understanding of the problems and solutions. Research by organizations like the National Center for Healthy Housing continues to expand our capacity to address not just lead, but all health hazards in American homes - including how they interact with each other.
  • Further, property owners and trade organizations like the National Association of Home Builders, National Multifamily Housing Council, and National Apartment Association have been collaborating constructively to solve health hazard problems. For example, their participation in our proposed lead-based paint rulemaking resulted stronger, more cost-effective solutions.
  • Finally, the ultimate stakeholders, the residents of HUD-assisted housing have stepped up their efforts to protect their children. In cities like Cleveland and Chicago, they've campaigned successfully for community-wide solutions - supported in both cities by law school clinics that provided strategic legal help.

In closing, let me leave you with this final thought.

You have all the necessary ingredients for success in this room - strong and able local and state leadership - the professional competence for cost-effective action - a commitment to ridding our homes of lead poisons - and advocates ready to tackle the daunting challenges ahead.

This adds up to enormous potential in this country for ending childhood lead poisoning within five years. I know it's a very ambitious.

But the stakes are high, and so are the possibilities. I know you're up to the challenge. I know you are.

Thank you.


Content Archived: February 9, 2018