BURLINGTON - Peeling lead paint poses a serious health risk to Burlington's kids. But getting the lead out is expensive and just got more so; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently turned down the city's request for a $3 million grant to fund its residential lead-abatement efforts.
And homes aren't the only place in town where lead is a problem. Last week Burlington's Code Enforcement Office found peeling lead paint on the exterior of the Lawrence Barnes Elementary School in the Old North End. The paint, on the trim beneath the roofline, is flaking all around the perimeter of the building.
The Burlington Code Enforcement Office conducted an inspection at Barnes after being contacted by City Councilor Tim Ashe, who had been approached by a concerned parent. The city department ordered the Burlington School District to remove the paint within 30 days.
The fact that the school contains lead paint was not a surprise to Chris Giard, director of property services for the Burlington School District. He says lead is an issue in all of Burlington's schools. Lead-based paint remained in use until 1978, and is commonly found on older buildings. "We have buildings from the '50s and earlier where we have to assume that everything is lead," Giard explains.
Deteriorating paint creates lead-saturated dust that, at low levels, can irreparably damage a child's kidneys, brain and central nervous system, and cause developmental and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. Ingesting large amounts of lead can cause convulsions or death.
Maintaining Burlington's lead-paint-covered surfaces is "very tricky," says Giard, who is responsible for it. "Today things are perfect, tomorrow they can fall apart."
Last spring, Giard inspected Barnes, Flynn and Champlain Elementary Schools. He ordered new paint jobs for Flynn and Champlain, but he thought the paint at Barnes looked as if it could last another season. He believes it deteriorated because of the wet summer weather. "The moisture got behind it and caused it to peel back," he explains.
The paint does not yet appear to be falling to the ground, Giard points out. "It isn't as if it puts kids in immediate danger," he says. But until the paint is removed, the school is keeping students from within 10 feet of the building, and is sending a janitor out each morning to discard any fallen paint chips.
Giard says crews began scraping and repriming the affected areas last weekend, and will continue the process this weekend. The effort will cost the district about $5000.
Barnes Principal Paula Bowen blames the delayed repairs on "chronically underfunded maintenance budgets." She wishes Burlington taxpayers were willing to spend more to make the schools lead-safe.
Funding is also an issue for the Burlington Lead Program. Director Graham Destakasi says the recent loss of funds could kill the initiative, although "We still want to exhaust other options before we say the program is going to shut down."
Burlington, which has the oldest housing stock in Vermont, is the only city in the state with its own lead program. It was established with a HUD grant in 2003. Since its inception, the program has inspected 123 homes and apartments, and made 70 of them lead-safe. It's also sponsored 219 educational events, and trained more than 500 landlords and contractors in Essential Maintenance Practices.
Destakasi says the program is essential - 4.3 percent of Burlington children under 6 have elevated lead levels, more than double the national average. And he believes the problem is worse than the numbers suggest - only 28 percent of kids under 6 in Burlington get tested.
Burlington's situation is alarming, but the actual number of lead-poisoned kids is low compared with larger metropolitan areas competing for grant money. Destakasi suggests that's one reason HUD withheld funding.