Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, 17:2, 127±138 (1998)
# 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston. Manufactured in The Netherlands.
Lead Paint, Toxic Torts, and the Housing Stock:
A Case Study in Risk Assessment
ROY J. EPSTEIN
Analysis Group±Economics, 1 Brattle Square, Cambridge, MA 02138
Numerous policymakers have accepted claims in the public health literature that the United States is in the middle
of a serious epidemic of childhood lead poisoning, due primarily to lead paint in the housing stock. This article
analyzes some of the most in¯uential lead paint epidemiological studies from an economics perspective and ®nds
evidence that the claimed effects of lead on intelligence, school success, and other outcomes may be grossly
exaggerated. In addition, the main cost-bene®t analysis used by policymakers to advocate lead paint abatement
of the entire U.S. housing stock contains serious mathematical errors and strikingly implausible economic
assumptions. A corrected model shows that the proposed national abatement policy is likely to yield no net
Key Words: lead poisoning, lead paint, cost-bene®t analysis, risk assessment
In recent years a striking number of public health policymakers have accepted the premise
that exposure to minute levels of lead poses major risks to the well-being and economic
prospects of millions of children in the United States.
For example, the National Research
Council (1993) states that ``in 1984 about 6 million children and 400,000 fetuses were
exposed to lead at concentrations to an extent that placed them at risk of adverse health
effects.'' The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (1991a) declares that lead poisoning is
``the most common and societally devastating environmental disease of young children.''
The most well-known measures taken by public authorities to reduce ingestion of lead
include the 1977 ban of lead-based paint ( paint with more than 0.06% lead by weight) and
the elimination of leaded gasoline, which was completed by the end of the 1980s.
The CDC currently de®nes 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) in
children as the threshold for medical concern. There are no observable physical symptoms
at this subclinical level of exposure. Instead, the alleged effects include a range of
problems such as reduced intelligence, attention de®cits, academic failure, and increased
propensity for criminal behavior. Remarkably, the 10 mg/dL criterion implies that until the
1980s over 90% of children in the United States were harmed by lead. By comparison, the
CDC's threshold in 1975 was 40 mg/dL and was as high as 80 mg/dL in the 1950s. An
epidemic of lead poisoning has been declared even though the average child's blood lead
level has plummeted from about 17 mg/dL in the 1970s to about 4 mg/dL today.