Federal officials announced Thursday that they have set aside $330 million to clean up lead-based paint and other environmental hazards in low-income housing.

The money will be available in the form of grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Cities, counties, tribal governments and other local leadership bodies can apply for the grants, which will be awarded in sums up to $9.1 million for a five-year period.

Ben Carson | Credit: HUD

In total, $12 million has been set aside specifically for cleaning up various hazards in homes on tribal land, while the remaining $324 million will be used to clean up lead-based paint in “high impact neighborhoods” — or places with a lot of pre-1940s homes, low-income families and children with elevated levels of lead in their blood. HUD notes that this is the “largest funding amount ever available to make low-income housing lead safe.”

In a statement Thursday, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said that people “shouldn’t be worried about the hidden dangers that could affect you and your family.”

“Housing conditions directly affect the health of its residents,” he added. “Grants like these will help communities around the nation protect themselves from the danger of lead exposure and other health and safety hazards.”

Lead-based paint was outlawed in the U.S. in 1978. However, it remains common, with HUD estimating that it still represents a “significant” hazard in about 24 million homes that were built before the ban. Exposure to the substance, particularly if it becomes airborne in the form of dust, can lead to a host of health problems in children such as lower IQs, developmental delays, impaired hearing and learning disabilities, among other things.

According to the World Health Organization, exposure to higher levels of lead can also damage children’s nervous systems and cause convulsions, comas or even death. For pregnant women, it can lead to miscarriage, premature birth or low birth weight.

Lead has been added to paint for centuries for a variety of reasons, including for the colors it can produce, as a thickener and to make the paint more resistant to damage and wear. However, people have also long been aware that lead is toxic; Benjamin Franklin explored the subject in 1786 and Sherman Williams noted in 1904 that the paint was poisonous.

In real estate, U.S. home sellers are typically required to disclose information about the presence of lead-based paint in their homes.

In his statement Thursday explaining the decision to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to lead mitigation, Carson also noted that “your home is a haven from the outside world.”

For Carson and his agency, the decision to devote more money to hazard cleanup may be a welcome distraction from a number of recent controversies. Most notably, Carson’s appearance at a congressional hearing last month was widely panned, with observers expressing bafflement over answers that appeared to betray a lack of knowledge about housing issues.

HUD also came under fire two weeks ago when it came to light that the agency was preventing undocumented immigrants from getting FHA loans.

And the Trump administration’s efforts to increase housing supply — efforts that Carson is leading — have also been blasted by critics.

Despite these controversies, HUD struck an optimistic tone Thursday, with Matthew Ammon, director of the agency’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes, saying that the grants make “it clear that providing healthy and safe homes for the community is a priority.”

“A key part of having a healthy home is maintaining your own health,” Ammon added. “HUD is committed to protecting families from these hazards and providing healthy and sustainable housing.”

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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