The cumulative buildup of lead is the cause of severe health concerns in children, particularly those under the age of six, where risk is highest. Physical symptoms can include seizures, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fatigue. Neurological concerns range from developmental delays and behavioral issues to learning disabilities. Top sources of contamination come from lead paint dust in older construction; water pipes, faucets, or fixtures (think Flint, Michigan); soil; and toys.
In a perfect world, children would be tested for lead exposure annually through their sixth birthday, and doctors would also check pregnant women.
Parents may assume that laws protect the next generation. However, New York City Council Environmental Protection Chair James F. Gennaro noted, “I was a sponsor of the NYC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. It’s a great law, but any law is only as good as the enforcement it receives.”
Case in point: In New York City, that hasn’t been a guarantee.
It’s been almost two decades since Local Law 1 passed in 2004 and went into effect.
In 2019, Scott Stringer, then New York City Comptroller, released a report on childhood lead exposure. It revealed that “thousands of children” were in danger from lead poisoning throughout the five boroughs. The ramifications were severe and irreparable. Stringer also followed up with a look at the lead problem in school settings.
During a testing period from January 2013 through October 2018, roughly 26,027 minors (under 18) showed elevated blood levels of lead, equal to or surpassing the standards of the CDC.
Why has the health of children been allowed to fall through the cracks? Who is at fault? Is it a matter of government bureaucracy or primary players’ lack of will and follow-through?
New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Health (DOHMH) sat on “thousands” of lead blood test findings rather than directly feeding them to the Department of Housing Preservation (HPD). An action from DOHMH would have initiated proactive follow-up at the source of the problem. Instead, it conducted and structured response to the health hazard by reacting only to “complaint-driven” input.
The DOHMH findings, which amassed names and addresses, were allowed to languish within their offices. The Department of Housing Preservation only acted on complaints from tenants to drive their inspections, not on actionable data.
A key factor in implementation was the challenge of compliance. Local Law 1 regulations call on landlords to be vigorous in preventing the circumstances for lead hazards. However, follow-up inspector visits and enforcement of the rules were never carried out.
Stringer’s report exposed that almost 20% of the population of children in New York City under the age of three years old (who required testing for lead poisoning) had not received it in 2017.
The series of steps to ameliorate lead exposure that Stringer outlined continues to be relevant:
- Comprehensive testing for children at the birthday milestones of ages one and two.
- Strict enforcement of Local Law 1, requiring landlords to inspect and remove lead-based paint hazards.
- Complete underwriting of enforcement follow-through via the Fully Fund LeadFreeNYC. There is a fiscal gap of millions of dollars.
- Outreach and amplification. Tenants need to know where their building falls in the Building Lead Index. Languages and cultural barriers should be taken into consideration. Community organizations should be involved to facilitate interaction.
It can be done.
In September 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James set the example through the office’s investigation into A&E Real Estate Holdings, a landlord managing over 10,000 apartments. The AG found the company was not implementing the requirements of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. Their negligence specifically impacted the inspection of dwelling units and, when called for, following up with the requisite “lead hazard remediation.”
As a result of the agreement struck with A&E, the landlord was told to pay $510,000 to the OAG to underwrite programs targeting the protection of children from lead poisoning. (There were criticisms that the amount was too small.) Additionally, they had to bring their units into compliance with the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act while documenting compliance with the OAG for three years.
“We applaud New York Attorney General Letitia James for taking on criminally negligent landlords who ignore laws designed to protect children from toxic lead poisoning, which causes irreversible damage to mental and physical health… Lead poisoning is completely preventable, and the city has plenty of laws on the books, but they are rarely enforced. This is extremely troubling for Black/African American communities because we know from national studies that Black children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to suffer from lead poisoning as poor white children.”
New York has demonstrated how to execute and call to account those who would discount children’s health. It’s an example for others nationwide.