Odd as it may seem, the debate over the lead-paint rule reminds me of the movie Saving Private Ryan. If you’ve seen the movie, no doubt you remember how director Steven Spielberg first shows in stomach-turning detail the carnage U.S. troops suffered on Normandy’s D-Day beaches and then juxtaposes that with a platoon’s search to find and safely bring home just one soldier.
Saving Private Ryan ostensibly is about the sacrifice by the many to make possible our concern for the one. The lead-paint fight echoes that notion, because at its heart lies this question: Is it worth spending millions of dollars and remodelers’ hours to protect a relatively small number of kids and pregnant women from lead exposure?
A recent letter to the editor illustrates this. In it, remodeler Mike Patterson of Gaithersburg, Md., takes issue with June’s First Word column in which I noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has decided to stop using 10 micrograms of lead in a deciliter of blood as its standard for a “level of concern” and instead will focus on the most exposed 2.5% of the population, no matter how low the number may be. I likened the CDC’s decision to what manufacturers do when they implement error-reduction programs to improve their assembly lines.
The CDC says it changed its tack because it can’t say how small an amount of lead in blood is safe. The problem, Patterson correctly points out, is that the CDC’s action removes the possibility that we’ll ever be able to declare victory on this issue, while simultaneously forcing us to commit ever-greater resources for an ever-smaller gain.
“The idea that nothing is ever good enough is a pervasive one, but it’s a pernicious and expensive one as well,” Patterson writes. “Pernicious in that it never allows one to feel that something worthy has been accomplished, and expensive, as it forces us all to shave our profit margins ever thinner, in the pursuit of ... what? A goal? How is that possible, when the goal posts are moved every time we approach?”
America has done amazing work combating lead exposure. In the late 1970s, studies found that an estimated 88% of children aged 1 to 5 had 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. When similar tests were conducted between 2007 and 2010, just 0.8% of the kids had the same level.
Note that this improvement came before the lead-paint rule took effect, and at a price (largely from getting lead out of gasoline) that our society could afford. Tens of millions of kids are out of danger, and now a relatively few remain.
I never liked the premise of Saving Private Ryan, and I don’t like what the CDC did here. The rule’s cost doesn’t justify the benefit.