Every day, on average, at least one child in Rhode Island is lead poisoned.
Let that sink in.
That’s at least one child at risk for developmental delays, reductions in IQ, lifelong behavioral issues, increased school suspensions, and heightened involvement in the criminal justice system. Simply put, the impacts of lead poisoning are devastating — for children, their families, and our communities.
In recent years, the Attorney General’s office has brought enforcement actions against more than 65 properties where children have been lead poisoned. And while the Attorney General has obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties from those landlords, and forced landlords to make those properties lead safe, we must continue working proactively to ensure that there is compliance with existing lead poisoning prevention laws before a child is harmed.
We know we have significant work to do. Rhode Island has the second highest rate of children under the age of 6 with severe lead poisoning in New England. One out of 14 rising Rhode Island kindergarten students is affected by lead poisoning, and in 2021, 432 children were found to have lead poisoning. According to Department of Health data, 19 percent of Providence children are lead poisoned by the time they reach elementary school. That number is around 14 percent in Newport, 9 percent in Westerly and 5 percent in Cumberland. These numbers should shock our collective conscience. Particularly when we could fix the problem, if we had the right tools.
Our statewide struggles with lead poisoning largely stem from the age of our housing-stock and infrastructure. Many of our homes were built 50, 100, even 150 years ago, before lead-based paint was federally outlawed.
While Rhode Island already has a strong lead poisoning prevention foundation on the books — with laws that require landlords to ensure the housing they offer meets lead safe standards, it should not take individual lawsuits brought by the attorney general to bring landlords into compliance. Let’s be clear, many responsible landlords comply with these commonsense regulations and obtain lead inspections and certificates when required before renting out their units. But there remain too many others who, whether through ignorance, negligence, or callousness, rent out unsafe homes that are poisoning our children.
With the housing crisis impacting tenants across the state, families can’t afford to be choosy. Many may not ask about lead for fear of being passed over for the next person in line. Others may not even know to ask, and in a perfect world, they shouldn’t have to. We have a compliance problem in Rhode Island, which is why we are proposing legislation to strengthen enforcement of laws we already have on the books.
The bills we are proposing (H6239, S0804) will create the infrastructure necessary to ensure landlords comply with existing laws that we know keep kids healthy and safe. Our bill would establish a statewide rental registry for all properties, and require that landlords file proof that they meet existing lead safety requirements — or evidence that these requirements do not apply to them. Through this public facing portal, renters can easily determine whether their home is lead-safe.
The bill is just one of many that aim to address lead poisoning and protect our children. Other bills by our colleagues Senators Valarie Lawson, Tiara Mack and Jonathon Acosta, and Representatives David Morales, Matthew Dawson and Brandon Voas, seek to further strengthen lead protections for tenants. Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Representative William O’Brien have championed legislation to use federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to begin replacing all lead water pipes throughout the state, at no cost to homeowners or landlords, to ensure our drinking water is lead-free. All of these measures are based on effective strategies employed in other states that drastically reduce lead poisoning levels.
Protecting our children from lead poisoning is well within our control. With elected leaders, landlords and regulators working together, we can eradicate lead poisoning in Rhode Island for good.
Peter F. Neronha serves as Rhode Island’s Attorney General. Representative Mia Ackerman is a Democrat representing District 45 (Cumberland, Lincoln) in the state House of Representatives, where she serves as deputy majority whip. Senator Dawn Euer is a Democrat representing District 13 (Newport, Jamestown) in the state Senate, where she serves as chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary.