Do you believe that our government should take an active role in cleaning up the environment? Do you believe that every one of us, young and old, rich and poor, should have a healthy place to live and breathe? Unfortunately, our state and local governments have failed to fix the problem of lead-contaminated housing in our urban communities. Lead poisoning is a major public health problem, especially in old urban centers where most homes were built before 1978.

No. 1 Health Risk for Children – Lead paint poisoning is the number one environmental health risk for young children.

Until 1978 lead paint was used on interior and exterior surfaces.

  • Lead paint presents a continuing hazard in all older homes where there is peeling and flaking paint and resulting lead-contaminated household dust.
  • Some landlords ignore dangerous paint conditions even when they know young children are present.
  • Children six years old and younger are especially at risk.
  • Lead paint chips taste good to children.
  • One chip of heavily leaded paint when swallowed can cause lead poisoning.
  • Children need not eat lead paint chips or paint flakes, most are poisoned merely by hand-to-mouth contact with lead-contaminated dust in their households.
  • Lead poisoning dramatically affects a child’s behavior and intelligence quotient (IQ).

The Law in New York –  In 1992 Gov. Cuomo signed into law a bill known as the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, finally putting New York State in line with a majority of the states by authorizing regulations for the testing of children and pregnant women for blood lead levels. The bill also set aside funds to screen children living in conditions of poverty and required doctors to report elevated lead levels to the public health authorities. However, the bill failed to appropriate money to identify and abate lead hazards, nor did it provide assurances that contractors engaging in lead abatement work were qualified to perform the work in a safe and effective manner. Legislative efforts to amend the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act to provide for certification of abatement contractors have not been successful to date, neither have efforts to amend the act or to increase the fines against property owners who refuse to correct violations in housing where a child has already been poisoned.

The Record in Buffalo and Erie County – When the Governor signed the law in 1992, he commented that lead poisoning was one of the most preventable childhood health problems facing society. It was clear to the Governor and to public officials at all levels that there was no excuse for lead contamination and poisoning to continue to be such a major public health problem. Nonetheless, in an article published the following year, The Buffalo News quoted one medical expert as saying that the source of potential lead poisoning (deteriorating housing stock) “still exists and probably will for decades.” In another article that same year, The News noted that Buffalo ranked sixth in the nation for lead poisoning and that “62% of Erie County’s preschool children” were at risk. (Buffalo was again ranked sixth in 2000 for the number of children with elevated lead levels.)

It was estimated in 1993 that in this country more than four million children under the age of five were living in homes built before 1950 likely to be painted (and contaminated) with lead. Also, in 1993, the year after the Governor signed New York’s law, Erie County health officials reported that of 27,000 children tested, 5,500 were found to have elevated lead levels in their blood. At the same time, according to the County’s Medicaid Administrator, most of the housing units in the City of Buffalo were still positive for lead. Despite the large number of existing contaminated homes, the County required only 800 property owners in 1993 to seal or cover flaking or disintegrating lead paint.

The City of Buffalo undertook its own federally funded lead abatement program in 1994. Four years later this program had successfully (perhaps) abated lead contamination in only three houses. In 1998 a state health department survey reported that two per cent of the City’s children had blood lead levels requiring medical attention. This was more than twice the statewide average.

What happened to Buffalo’s program to remove dangerous lead paint from inner-city houses? According to an article published in The Buffalo News in 2000, “even the 153 homes the city declared lead-free may not be rid of the poison, continuing to pose health risks to the children who still live there.” 

2001 Health Department Report – The story is not entirely disheartening, but neither is the picture as rosy as a 2001 report from the State Health Department would make it appear. That report examined zip codes throughout the state and concluded that, in 1999, when compared to three years earlier, lead poisoning among children in the state declined significantly. The report also noted that our state has the highest number of housing units in the nation built before 1950 and that 75% of these contain lead paint. It also reported that children living in three zip codes in Erie County–14208, 14211, and 14212–accounted for a significant percentage of the total number of children identified for the first time in 1999 with elevated blood lead levels. 

What Has to be Done? – The lesson is a painful one and it is not over. We have learned that lead poisoning is a preventable disease, that we need increased blood screening of children and pregnant women, that more homes should be tested for the presence of lead-based paint hazards, and that workers performing lead abatement should be properly trained. New York still has no legally mandated program to require lead abatement contractors to be qualified to perform this work. To solve the problem we need political commitment and a large investment of public and private funds. Children must be protected by ridding their home environments of dangerous lead. Lead abatement costs an average of $15,000 or more per housing unit when striving to make the premises lead-free. Typically, all windows must be replaced as well as old exterior siding. Interior woodwork, i.e. window trim, baseboards, etc. must be replaced or at least completely stripped of all old paint, and repainted with durable lead-free paint. Less costly remediation measures are still allowed. They might make a house temporarily lead-safe, though not lead-free and require ongoing vigilance by a property owner to protect against re-emerging lead hazards, especially if old paint is merely covered with new paint.

Legislation Pending in Albany – At present, numerous bills have been introduced in the New York State Assembly and Senate to address the policy issues surrounding the public health hazard caused by lead-based paint. One of the key Assembly bill sponsors is Assembly Member Susan V. John (D-Monroe Co.) who is very concerned about children’s health issues. Ms. John’s office welcomes citizen comment on pending legislation concerning lead paint issues. The District Office for Assembly Member Susan John is located at Village Gate Square, 274 Goodman Street, Suite C/254, Rochester, N.Y. 14607. Phone 585-244-5255. Highlighted below are some of the current proposals introduced in the 2003 Session of the New York State Legislature.

  • A00017 – This Assembly bill would amend the Public Health Law to establish training and certification programs for lead abatement contractors and would make New York State eligible for special HUD funding to help abate lead in low and moderate income housing. There have been repeated attempts since 1993 to get this bill passed. It has passed before in the Assembly but has never made it through the Senate. The current bill is alive and negotiations on its provisions are continuing, with active involvement from Assembly Member John’s legal staff.
  • A01341 – This omnibus Assembly bill, also sponsored by Assembly Member John, would increase requirements for screening children for lead upon enrollment in public school and upon referral to the committee on special education. It would result in better identification of lead-affected children by making schools verify that lead screening has occurred. The bill would also require the state health department to seek approval to use Medicaid funds for community-based interventions and education. Medical providers would be required to screen all children for lead up to age seven, and to screen all pregnant women. On the environmental safety side, this bill would also lower the threshold blood lead level from 20 mg/dl to 10 mg/dl for triggering a health department inspection of a child’s residence to identify existing conditions conducive to lead poisoning.
  • A04241 – This Assembly bill would increase the penalty against property owners for failing to comply with a notice and demand to discontinue a dangerous lead paint condition from $2500 to $5000. This bill remains in the Assembly’s Health Committee, and has not passed for over eight years.
  • SO4643 – This Senate bill asks for appropriation of $50 Million to the State Department of Health to be distributed as grants in aid to persons in need of lead abatement. This bill is in the Senate Finance Committee, and there’s been no further action on it.

What We Can Do Now – Despite the best efforts of people like Assembly Member John, and other people involved in forming a state-wide coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, we still need to find and implement a large-scale solution to this preventable public health problem. We need to make it impossible for even one child to move into a lead-contaminated apartment. Until that happens, each of us can take steps to make our homes lead-safe, even if they are not entirely lead-free.

  • Remove flaking and peeling lead paint using approved methods, and never sand off suspected lead-based paint.
  • Avoid spreading lead dust throughout living areas, wet-mop floors near old windows frequently, and remove lead-laced dust by wiping down window surfaces with a water solution containing dishwasher soap.
  • Seal older painted surfaces with lead-free coatings.
  • Watch for signs of chipping and flaking paint. Pay particular attention to painted interior and exterior wood trim and window surfaces.