Attorney General Neronha, Mayor Maria Rivera, state legislators, and advocates host lead safety celebration day

Published on Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera, state legislators, and community partners, today highlighted recent lead poisoning prevention efforts, including historic legislation passed in 2023, and recommitted to the cause of eradicating childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island. Today’s event took place at the Learning Community in Central Falls during National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (Oct. 22-28) which aims to raise awareness about childhood lead exposure and poisoning.

In June 2023, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a package of bills introduced at the request of Attorney General Peter F. Neronha to address lead poisoning and promote healthy housing. These new laws represent the most significant tenant protections that Rhode Island has seen in a generation, as well as the most significant healthy housing legislation since the passage of the Lead Hazard Mitigation Act of 2002.

“Today’s event is certainly a celebration of our collective legislative achievements, but perhaps more importantly, a kickoff for the work ahead of us,” said Attorney General Neronha. “These lead-related victories don’t happen in a silo; the passage of these laws took intergovernmental collaboration, community advocacy, and a staunch commitment to eliminating this significant health issue. Now that we have laws to enforce compliance, we need that same coalition to ensure that landlords are held accountable and necessary remediation takes place. Once again, I am very grateful to our sponsors, supporters, and advocates in the General Assembly and the community who helped pass these crucial laws, and I invite all Rhode Islanders to join us in eradicating childhood lead poisoning.”

These three laws mark a crucial step in eradicating childhood lead poisoning by ensuring compliance with existing lead laws. One new law establishes a statewide rental registry with an additional requirement for landlords who own non-exempt pre-1978 buildings to file lead conformance certificates, which are already required by law. Another law institutes an escrow account with the court into which tenants can pay rent when there are unaddressed lead hazards in their homes. This law ensures that tenants remain current on their rent obligations, and that landlords aren't able to access the funds until they address the lead hazards. Finally, the third new law allows for treble damage recovery by which families affected by childhood lead poisoning can recover up to three times their actual damages (known as treble damages), creating another mechanism to encourage compliance with existing law.

“The legislation we are celebrating represents a significant victory for the health of Rhode Island’s children and families,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Dawn Euer. “I am proud that the Senate has played a key role in addressing lead hazards throughout our state. Moving forward, we remain committed to working with our partners to mitigate these hazards and make all our communities safer and healthier.”

Along with Chairwoman Dawn Euer (D - District 13 - Newport, Jamestown), Deputy Majority Whip Mia Ackerman (D - District 45 - Cumberland, Lincoln), Senator Tiara Mack (D - District 6 – Providence), Representative David Morales (D - District 7 - Providence), Senator Valarie Lawson (D - District 14 – East Providence), and Rep. Matthew Dawson (D - District 65 - East Providence) sponsored and advocated for these new lead laws, along with countless other government officials, community leaders, and housing and health advocates, who helped rally support.

“Every Rhode Islander deserves safe, healthy housing, where they don’t have to worry about their kids being lead poisoned,” said House Deputy Majority Whip Mia A. Ackerman. “These laws will push us toward our goal of completely eliminating lead poisoning in our state.”

The state’s densest city with many older homes built before the 1978 lead paint ban – Central Falls – has taken lead poisoning prevention into their own hands. Following a unique three-day Central Falls Housing Summit that gave important community insight, Mayor Maria Rivera empowered the city’s legal department and code enforcement staff to develop a program to make homes “lead safe” citywide. The city has won funding from RIHousing and Rhode Island Foundation to elevate and maintain its lead safety efforts, hired a Lead Poisoning Prevention Coordinator and bilingual Housing Inspector, and collaborated with the Attorney General’s Office for legal advice and assistance, among many more community-wide efforts that have helped fight to eradicate this preventable health issue.

This year, the city took another step towards eradicating childhood lead poisoning by partnering with its legislators, Representative Brandon Voas (D - District 57 - Central Falls, Cumberland) and Senator Jonathon Acosta (D - District 16​​​ - Central Falls, Pawtucket) to expand the protections of the Lead Hazard Mitigation Act to encompass pre-1978 owner-occupied two- or three-unit dwellings.

“Since taking office, combating the child lead poisoning spike we saw through the pandemic has been a priority of mine,” said Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera. “Central Falls has focused on this work from all angles – from multi-lingual neighborhood outreach, to family events with our school community, to local partnerships, to working with RI Housing in our Housing Court to help landlords abate lead, to a supportive partnership with Attorney General Neronha’s office. We’ve seen amazing progress, like bringing nearly 1,000 housing units into compliance, and working with Representative Voas and Senator Acosta to close a loophole in the state’s lead poisoning prevention laws that impacted children in Central Falls and Providence. I want to thank our Attorney General and state legislators for their focus on lead safety laws passed this year, keeping the health and safety of our children front and center.”

Today’s celebration was held during the Center for Disease Control’s National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which aims to increase lead poisoning prevention awareness to reduce childhood exposure to lead. Lead poisoning can severely affect mental and physical development, especially for children under six years old. According to Department of Health data, 19% of Providence children are lead poisoned by the time they reach elementary school. That number is approximately 15% in East Providence, 14% in Central Falls, and Newport, and 5% in Cumberland.

“Every family deserves help to keep their kids safe from lead, whether it is due to old house paint, soil, water, or consumer products,” said Laura Brion, Executive Director of the Childhood Lead Action Project. “This legislation strengthens protections for some of the most at-risk families in the state, moving us closer to a place where safe, affordable housing is a right and not a privilege”

Lead enforcement has been a priority for Attorney General Neronha. Since the fall of 2021, the Attorney General has filed 19 lawsuits and obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties from landlords who have failed to fully address serious lead violations on properties where kids were lead poisoned. As a result of actions by the Office, more than 68 housing units have been remediated following the issuance of intent to sue letters, pre-suit negotiations, and lawsuits.

The Office of the Attorney General wants Rhode Islanders to have the resources and tools they need to inform, educate, and advocate for themselves. To that end, the Attorney General has created a dedicated web page which aims to provide the public with information about lead poisoning, Rhode Island lead laws, lead-related litigation, and helpful external resources. This page will be updated regularly as new information and resources become available, including important updates about the rental registry, escrow account, and treble damages, as called for in the new laws.