SEAS alum dedicated to diminishing the threat of childhood lead poisoning
Although lead paint was banned for residential use in 1978, lead exposure from deteriorated lead paint continues to harm children in the United States.
“You’ve got to remember that there's an enormous amount of housing, somewhere between 40 to 50%, in the U.S. that was built before 1978,” says University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) alum Max Weintraub (MS ’93), who currently serves as chief of the Lead Hazard Reduction Section of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch in the California Department of Public Health. “Deteriorated lead paint contaminates dust and soil and, as a result, remains a major source of childhood lead poisoning.”
Knowing that the effects of lead exposure can range from damage to the brain and nervous system to learning and behavior problems, Weintraub has dedicated his career to diminishing this threat.
For over two decades, until 2021, Weintraub was an enforcement officer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He says that, during that time, the bulk of his casework was related to lead. “I conducted more than 400 inspections over that period and took dozens of enforcement cases,” says Weintraub. “During that time, I had an enormous amount of autonomy in selecting the targets. So, I came up with a technique that was subsequently adopted by other EPA offices to closely examine building permits and understand where renovation work was being performed by different companies in different areas. That enabled me to put an environmental justice lens on the inspection process. So I wasn't just inspecting old houses in wealthy areas of San Francisco, but I was inspecting old houses in low-income communities in Richmond as well.”
During his tenure at the EPA, Weintraub worked on developing a case that would, in 2021, result in the largest civil settlement to date under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The Act, enacted in 1976, is one of about a dozen environmental laws implemented by the EPA and provides the authority to require reporting and testing requirements as well as restrictions to chemical substances and/or mixtures.
The complaint was raised against Home Depot for violating lead paint rules, and an investigation found that they, the largest employer of residential remodeling subcontractors in the country, were hiring people who were not properly trained and certified to do the work. In addition, the case, United States of America, et al. v. Home Depot, U.S.A., Inc., revealed instances where Home Depot knew homes were presumed to have lead-based paint yet designated them as jobs that did not.
The case resulted in a $20 million dollar settlement and some important action-based outcomes, and what Weintraub says represents a significant shift in toxic substance control. “This settlement was unusual not only because of the large financial penalty but also because it resulted in additional safeguards to ensure the thousands of subcontractors Home Depot hires to perform various residential remodeling jobs are properly certified in accordance with the Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) rule,” says Weintraub. He adds that as part of the settlement Home Depot now performs lead-based paint educational outreach. “For example, when you call Home Depot and are placed on hold, you will often hear a message about lead-based paint and how to avoid creating lead hazards during home renovation.”
Weintraub says that the magnitude of this case goes well beyond the settlement dollars, as it has built awareness among those that work in the often segmented renovation industry. “Home Depot got a lot of bad press because of this. The story got picked up by industry press, popular media—there were hundreds of articles written about the settlement. All this helps make the residential renovation industry aware of the requirements and encourages greater compliance. While race and class disparities in childhood lead poisoning have diminished, low-income families and non-Hispanic black children remain disproportionately threatened. Greater compliance decreases the creation of lead hazards, rate of childhood lead poisoning, and the persistence of health inequities related to the disease. So I think the RRP settlement with Home Depot was a significant game changer in that respect,” says Weintraub.
What Weintraub accomplished at the EPA has followed him into the role he transferred into in 2021 with the California Department of Public Health. In 2022, Governor Gavin Newsome signed a bill to have California seek EPA authorization to implement the RRP rule. Weintraub is managing that effort. “With the authorization of the lead-based paint RRP rule, my role is to help review and harmonize current state regulations to enable adoption of RRP regulations. Our branch is going to create the state infrastructure—whether it be to accredit training schools, certify individual renovators and renovation firms, or promote regulatory compliance and take enforcement cases—to ensure we have a strong system in place to oversee the thousands of renovation firms and tens of thousands of certified renovators in the state of California,” says Weintraub.
For Weintraub, this work has been a continuation of the passion for environmental justice that he developed during his time at SEAS. Even though the specialization hadn’t yet been established, and he specialized in Environmental Policy and Planning, Weintraub says that it was the opportunity to work with Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai—two of the earliest environmental justice scholars—that changed the trajectory of his career pursuits. “In 1991, I attended the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit with Professors Bryant and Mohai and students such as Karen DeGannes, Michael Dorsey, and others,” says Weintraub. “At the Summit, I learned about the substantial racial disparity in exposure to childhood lead poisoning that persists to this day. I came to U-M because I had a real interest in civil rights and environmentalism, and had been told this was the only spot to go to pursue those interests, but the Summit was a defining moment for me.”
One outcome of this Summit was the articulation of the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice by the hundreds of Summit participants. After the Summit, U-M students gathered to organize the first student-led course on environmental justice at U-M in the spring of 1992. “The class examined racial disparities and exposure in various ways as well as the policies that perpetuated, or could potentially eliminate them,” says Weintraub.
Those who attended the Summit learned about the early environmental justice research both from the academics who attended the Summit as well as from contributors to the groundbreaking book, “Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards,” published in 1992 and edited by Professors Bryant and Mohai. Weintraub says that, in the class, they started thinking very broadly about what the environmental justice movement was and how that social movement impacted their pre-existing environmental interests.
“We were fortunate in that U-M had a critical mass of professors with expertise in social movements and environmentalism, as well as some of the few professors nationwide with expertise in environmental justice, that we reached out to for guidance,” says Weintraub. “At the end of the student course, participants compiled more than a dozen research papers examining the environmental justice movement and environmentalism from varied perspectives on a wide range of issues. For several of us, the possibilities opened up by those experiences deeply affected our career path.”
These early roots in environmental justice made a lasting impression on Weintraub. While working at the EPA, he was also a part-time lecturer for environmental justice courses at several San Francisco Bay area universities. He says he felt fortunate to be able to pass on what he had learned about environmental justice at U-M. “Almost all of my classes built on the lessons I took from the environmental sociology course taught by Pat West and Bunyan Bryant. Like them, I ensured the students got out of the classroom and interacted in a mutually beneficial way with local community groups,” says Weintraub. “As a result, more than 500 students were able to learn from and provide support to dozens of local organizations fighting environmental threats and pursuing environmental benefits.”
At the end of the day, though, Weintraub says that he is a “Lead Head.” “What I find especially meaningful about the work I have pursued is that I get to help ensure that childhood lead poisoning is diminishing over time. This has been an enormous environmental justice challenge with substantial racial disparities. One of the first papers I wrote at SEAS was in Steve Yaffee’s environmental policy class focused on childhood lead poisoning and, ever since, I’ve been trying to diminish, diminish, diminish that threat to children’s health.”