Side view of several single-family homes
Much of Oakland and Alameda County's housing stock is made up of old homes where walls and fixtures are covered in poisonous lead paint. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Each year in Alameda County, roughly 300 children test positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood. It’s a condition that can interrupt development, causing cognitive and behavioral issues, especially in children under age 6.

In Midwestern and East Coast cities like Flint, Michigan, lead poisoning is typically caused by contaminated water, but in Oakland it’s most often a product of old homes where walls and fixtures were covered in lead-based paint, which only became illegal in 1978. Children can be exposed when they crawl or play on the floor in one of these buildings or outside around them, chewing on paint chips or licking fingers that have touched the dust.

“It affects their organs and skeletal structure,” said Larry Brooks, director of Alameda County’s Healthy Homes Department. “They might have learning disabilities that cause them to drop out of school.”

Alameda County guidance on reducing lead hazards at home.

CDC information on childhood lead poisoning.

According to Brooks, many parents blame themselves for their children’s exposure to dangerous levels of lead. But in 2000, Santa Clara County filed a lawsuit, arguing that companies that manufactured lead-based paint were at fault. Oakland, Alameda County, and others joined this lawsuit, and in 2019, they reached a landmark $305 million settlement requiring the paint companies to pay the communities where they knowingly sold their poisonous products for decades. Oakland and Alameda County together are entitled to $24 million, which has been flowing into county coffers. 

The settlement terms give the plaintiffs wide authority to use the funds in ways they believe address the damage, whether that’s through inspecting old homes, treating affected children, or educating the public and contractors about the dangers. 

But two and a half years later, the money has gone unspent. Oakland and Alameda County officials have argued with each other, mostly behind closed doors, over who gets what portion of the settlement dollars, and how they should be used. 

Oakland leaders believe the city should get the bulk of the funds, because most studies indicate that the areas most affected by lead paint poisoning are located there, especially in Fruitvale. County officials are advocating for a more even split, but say the two entities are nearing an agreement.

“Meanwhile, children are being poisoned all over the county,” said Brooks at a recent meeting of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program board.

Dividing up the money requires understanding which communities are hardest hit

When the lead paint lawsuit was settled two and a half years ago, local leaders said it would go a long way toward addressing the health hazard.

“Lead paint is prevalent in Oakland homes and disproportionately impacts African American, Hispanic, Asian and other communities of color and low-income communities,” said City Attorney Barbara Parker in a statement at the time. “These funds will make it possible to clean up the homes of our most vulnerable residents, and the settlement reaffirms that these companies are accountable for the harm their products continue to cause to California’s children.”

But Oakland and Alameda County’s dispute has delayed these programs.

“We were kind of unique, because we were the only county that had one of our cities (Oakland) as a plaintiff too,” Brooks told The Oaklandside. So it’s up to the county and city to hash out who gets what part of the award.

According to Brooks, the county initially offered Oakland 42% of the funds, proposing that the other 58% remain under the control of the county, which can spend the money on programs in other cities and unincorporated areas. Oakland negotiators said that the city needed to conduct an equity analysis to determine the extent and nature of the problem locally before responding to the proposal. 

Brooks told the board of the county’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program that Oakland conducted this study in fall 2020, postponing multiple meetings with the county on the matter over the following months. In July 2021, the county Board of Supervisors wrote to the city, asking Oakland to meet on the matter. 

The next month, Oakland proposed allocating 70% of the settlement funds to the city. The county countered with a proposal to give Oakland 60%, and Brooks said the city has expressed willingness to pursue that division. 

These negotiations took place in private, but the city broke the silence with a presentation at the September meeting of the lead poisoning board, which includes officials from the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and Emeryville, as well as county and community representatives. 

Marybelle Tobias, a consultant working for Oakland, presented conclusions from the city’s racial equity impact analysis, which found that there are 116 census tracts in Alameda County that are in the top 25% of California census tracts for lead risk. Of those 116, the 22 highest-risk tracts are all in Oakland. The study used data from CalEnviroScreen, a state tool tracking environmental hazards in order to calculate which communities are most “disadvantaged” and prioritize funding there. 

Tobias’ presentation did not identify the location or risk level of the other high-risk Alameda County tracts, and her full report has not yet been released publicly or to the county.

Oakland’s study confirmed that communities of color are at much higher risk of lead poisoning than majority-white neighborhoods in Oakland, Tobias said. 

“Every single predominantly Latinx census tract in Oakland is in the top 10% of all census tracts in the state of California” for lead risk, she said. “They are extremely burdened.”

A 2016 Reuters investigation also found that many neighborhoods in Oakland—and thousands of other areas across the U.S.—had higher lead poisoning rates than Flint, Michigan, where thousands of children were exposed to contaminated water starting in 2014.

The city’s equity study “demonstrated that we need to have comprehensive, proactive, and targeted strategies,” Tobias said. “We can do targeted lead testing in areas that have low lead testing rates or high numbers of children with lead poisoning.”

Brooks, however, is among many people and groups who have questioned the accuracy of CalEnviroScreen’s data methodology.

When Oakland and Alameda County staff reach an agreement, they will present the proposal to the City Council and Board of Supervisors, who will have the ultimate say.

Oakland proposes an ambitious inspection program targeting high-risk neighborhoods

Fruitvale is considered a particularly high-risk neighborhood for lead exposure from old housing. Credit: Amir Aziz

The city wants to launch a Proactive Rental Inspection program, or PRI, meaning city inspectors would go out in search of lead contamination by methodically testing housing paint samples in high-risk neighborhoods, instead of waiting for a complaint to come in, which is currently the process. Once lead contamination is identified, the city could fund clean-up work at affected properties or medical tests for residents, and would keep records of places where lead was identified or addressed. Oakland has discussed launching a PRI program for years, with a committee of the City Council even recommending its adoption in 2017. But the program has never gotten off the ground, and money has been a major obstacle.

“We’re going to have to have the funding to do that,” said Darlene Flynn, director of Oakland’s Race and Equity Department, at the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program board meeting in September.

Flynn and LaTonda Simmons, another member of the city’s settlement negotiations team, did not respond to multiple interview requests. Flynn told The Oaklandside in an email that the city is working on a public release of the equity analysis report, but a city spokesperson did not respond to a question about when the report would be released.

At the the lead prevention board meeting, City Councilmember Noel Gallo, Oakland’s representative on the board, said he supports the city’s plan to create an inspection program and urged the negotiators to reach an agreement quickly.

“To me, it’s very clear that if we have the greatest need, Oakland deserves to receive the greatest support financially,” said Gallo, who represents Fruitvale on the council. “To me what it comes down to is recognizing and honoring children and families,” many of whom have no choice but to rent deteriorating houses, he said.

Alameda County says funds should be used for training across the region

Brooks, whose department provides lead testing and treatment, social services, and home rehabbing funds, said he’s of two minds about Oakland’s proposal.

“All cities” should ideally launch proactive rental inspection programs, he said. Rochester, New York is considered the gold standard, inspecting most pre-1978 homes every three to six years through a program credited with eliminating most childhood lead poisoning in the city.

But Brooks told prevention board members that he has “grave concerns” about the city’s ability to finance such a program on an ongoing basis.  

“It’s way too expensive to do permanent abatement, so what you end up trying to do is address paint as it’s deteriorating,” he told The Oaklandside. Properties must be continually inspected.

“You should not be using settlement funds because they’re not sustainable,” he said.

Instead, he wants to invest in training more contractors and day laborers to better protect themselves and residents of the properties where they work. Lots of lead paint ends up in and around buildings as chips and dust when crews of workers scrape and sand it off to paint or do other construction on old housing. The county previously received a federal grant to expand training for code enforcement officers, which Brooks said increased response rates to complaints of paint scraping and other hazards.

Brooks was an enforcement officer himself in the 1990s, and said officers were erroneously taught back then that “peeling paint is an aesthetics issue.” 

Brooks also has concerns about concentrating most of the settlement funds in Oakland.

“There are other parts of the county that have pre-1978 housing,” and many people from Oakland are moving there, whether by choice or by necessity, he said. What if Oakland’s homes are remediated, and then “gentrifiers come in and buy those properties because they’re in great shape?”

Flynn from Oakland said the city’s proposed program would include displacement protections so current tenants would reap the benefits of the lead inspection and abatement work.

Residents can take steps to reduce lead paint exposure at home

To many public officials and medical professionals, the lawsuit settlement is largely symbolic. It would take much more money—billions of dollars—to remove the lead paint from every old home in the county.

“In an ideal world we’d have everything gone, but it’s generally not possible for cost reasons,” said Dr. Timur Durrani, a UCSF professor and expert in toxicology and childhood lead poisoning. “But there are a lot of low-cost or no-cost things we can do.”

He said Alameda County’s prevention program is “pretty robust.” In many cases, children can be treated medically to remove the lead from their systems, but public health nurses also go out and coach families to tape over exposed paint, move cribs away from peeling walls, and sweep up chips and dust, he said. 

The county’s program exists, in large part, due to community organizing by the group PUEBLO, or People United for a Better Life in Oakland, whose members were concerned after a 1987 study revealed high lead levels among Alameda County children. 

“Lead poisoning was something a lot of us didn’t have knowledge about, and a lot of children were affected for years,” said Gwen Hardy, a former PUEBLO member instrumental in gaining attention and funding for the issue locally.

Now, in the post-Flint era, many families are acutely aware of the dangers of lead poisoning, and feel doomed when their children test positive. But Durrani said that “while on a population basis, we don’t want any lead,” individual children react differently to elevated levels in their systems, and the impact is often not permanent.

“When we have a detectable level of lead in a child, that’s something for us to treat from a medical perspective, but that doesn’t mean the child is cursed forever,” he said.

When a child has cognitive and behavioral challenges, it’s not typically a reaction to lead on its own, but also other social and environmental factors, according to Durrani. There’s a societal desire to pin an issue on one problem that can be abated, he said, but the reality is unfortunately more complicated. 

For Oakland staff working on the lead proposal, that’s all the more reason to target neighborhoods where children are up against many compounding challenges, and to work to remove one of the common environmental hazards threatening their health and success.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.