LINCOLN–A bill that would require landlords to pay for lead dust swipe tests before selling or renting a property built before 1978 was discussed during a hearing at the Health and Human Services Committee Meeting March 15.
LB 653, or the Healthy Kids Act, introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, would provide a 90-day window for landlords to test properties. It would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to maintain a registry on the status of the properties.
“Overall, I truly believe that the American dream is built on homeownership, and having safe and affordable housing is critical to Nebraska,” he said. “And the key word to that is also safe, not just affordable.”
Wayne said prolonged exposure to lead can damage the brain, kidneys and the nervous systems. It can also lead to learning disabilities, seizures and major behavioral problems.
In 1978, the federal government banned the use of lead paint, which has affected over 500,000 housing units in the state, Wayne said. In a study, he said one town had nearly 90 percent of its housing structures built before 1980, making them at risk.
“Over 60 percent of the housing in this state has lead in it one way or another,” Wayne said. “All this [bill] does is require a lead wipe that will identify the problems and make people aware of those issues before they move in when they decide to live there.”
The bill was met with support from Maddie Fennell, who spoke on behalf of the Nebraska State Education Association. She said many children who live in these homes have a greater risk for poisoning, as their smaller bodies make them more susceptible to absorbing and retaining lead.
“I have taught children who have suffered from lead poisoning, and it was heartbreaking to see them struggle from something that can easily be prevented,” Fennell said.
Also speaking in support of the bill was Ian Sheets from the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, a children’s environmental health organization. It was founded in 2006 as a response to the high levels of lead contamination in the city and provides testing, construction and education on lead safety.
Sheets focused on the story of Norma, a 2-year-old girl who lived in a house heavily affected by lead. After conducting a test, Sheets educated her parents, who had been living in the house for 10 years.
“Imagine if they had received that information when they moved in,” he said. “If they had, Norma’s big brother may not have been exposed, and she certainly would not have been.”
Sheets said Norma’s story was typical of the residents the organization serves every day.
“They’re families who are willing and capable to take care of the lead paint, but just need a little bit of education about it and don’t know where to start,” he said. “LB 653 would be a step toward ensuring every family gets that education at the outset of renting or owning a property.”
Sheets also said the lead tests are conducted in New Jersey at about $25 per wipe, a cost he said is not prohibitive. He provided a graph for the committee members showing that as legislative acts for lead poisoning prevention are passed, the average blood lead level in children goes down.
“You have an opportunity here, and now, to add to that timeline,” he said. “More importantly, you have an opportunity to take a step toward making sure that kids like Norma can explore their world without danger of being poisoned by lead paint.”
However, Sheets proposed an amendment to the bill, which would remove wording about lead recertification, something he felt was not in line with the best practices.
“It’s really hard to say that a home is completely free of lead,” he said. “It takes a ton of testing and it’s potentially misleading.”
Gene Eckel spoke in opposition to the bill on behalf of the Nebraska Association of Commercial Property Owners and the Apartment Association of Nebraska. He said previous lead tests have shown false negatives, and that the EPA has said that no lead test kits to date have met its performance criteria.
The bill was also opposed by John Chaplain, president of the Metro Omaha Property Owners Association. He said he disagreed with the wording of the bill and believed it could cause a monopoly both with the testers and with the property owners who could afford it.
“I think the issue is already taken care of,” Chaplain said. “If the tenant wishes to have an inspection and to find out about the level of severity in the home, they may do so.”
Chaplain said he sees unintended consequences with the bill, and as he reads it, a tenant would be required to test for lead every time they rent a property, something Wayne said he would be willing to clarify. Like Sheets, he said he found issue with the wording of making a property “lead-free.”
“Homes that were built before ‘78 can probably be expected to have some lead-based paint hazard in them,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s dangerous or doesn’t mean that it’s not encapsulated or taken care of in some way, but I don’t know how you’d get a lead-free certification under the wording of the statute.”