End lead campaign rally last week in front of City Hall Credit: Contributed photo from Councilmember Gale Brewer’s office

The New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning (NYCCELP) gathered at City Hall last Thursday to demand that officials eliminate lead sources in the city and state that often impact low-income Black, brown, and Asian children.

Lead exposure in childhood can lead to serious, long-term learning difficulties and behavioral problems, said a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) lead report. Young children are especially at risk because they put things in their mouths, potentially exposing them to lead in dust and paint. 

The coalition is a group of advocates, doctors, and lawyers who first came together in the 1980s. They pushed for Local Law 1 of 2004, a bill that was sponsored by then Councilmember Bill Perkins as the Lead Poisoning Prevention Law. It was supposed to reduce sources of childhood lead poisoning from lead-based paint, lead dust, tainted drinking water, and piping by 2010. That didn’t quite happen.

The DOHMH report said that 2,603 children under 6 years old had a blood lead level of 5 mcg/dL or greater in 2020. This represents a 15% decline from 2019 when there were 3,050 children with the same blood lead levels. There’s been a significant decrease in city cases since 2005, a 93% decline since Local Law 1 of 2004 was officially implemented, said the report. The report noted that the COVID-19 crisis also led to “a drop in blood lead testing among children.”

The coalition is now focused on closing the current loopholes in the law and ending lead poisoning once and for all. Especially since childhood lead poisoning disproportionately impacts children of color in “high poverty” neighborhoods.

In 2020, 65% of children under 6 were from high-poverty neighborhoods and 78% were identified as Asian, Black and Latino children, said the DOHMH report.

WE ACT for Environmental’s Director of Policy Sonal Jessel said that the coalition’s agenda is calling for a set of bills and funding that addresses childhood lead poisoning, a multi agency taskforce to oversee the issue, tighter enforcement on landlord inspections, and for the city to identify and replace lead pipe lines underneath the ground.

“The thing about childhood lead poisoning is that it’s 100% preventable and it just shouldn’t exist anymore,” said Jessel. “Honestly it’s embarrassing especially New York City being such a wealthy, theoretically progressive, very public health forward city. To have a huge lead crisis is just unacceptable and there’s no excuse for it.”  

Jessel said just painting over lead paint is not nearly enough to cut down exposure. The city needs to hold small homeowners and landlords accountable and replace the contaminated piping that affects the city’s drinking water, she said. 

Jessel said that Brooklyn, Washington Heights, and pockets of the city have alarmingly high levels of lead present.

Councilmembers Gale Brewer, Lincoln Restler, and others gathered with We Act and the coalition to call attention to the overlooked issue of lead poisoning. 

Brewer penned a letter on Aug. 9 to DOHMH, Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Buildings about the city’s youth still being exposed to lead.

“I’m pretty shocked because there are many horrors in our city; lead’s one of the worst because it is often permanently damaging. It’s really bad that we haven’t knocked it out completely as an issue,” said Brewer.

Brewer said that the issue is that it’s a multi agency issue that requires a multi agency response. “The agencies are not sharing data,” said Brewer. “They’re not all coordinating. They’re not being hit over the head to get them coordinated on this topic.” 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said they are working to address lead on a national level and in New York City in response to the Amsterdam News’ inquiry. The EPA said they work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help address the issue. Under the recently signed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the EPA said they are working to reduce lead exposure and to address lead in water. The law also invests in replacing lead piping nationwide.

“Despite all the progress we have made in reducing lead in our environment over the last 40 years, too many people in this country still face significant health risks from lead exposure, especially children who are the most vulnerable among us,” said the EPA.

The EPA’s regional office in New York has had for more than a decade a partnership with the NYC DOHMH and other local health departments in New Jersey, said the EPA. They receive and respond to tip and complaint referrals based on construction, elevated blood lead levels, or unsafe conditions. They assisted in legal matters against contractors and construction companies in a 2020 and 2022 lawsuit that determined the respective defendants had violated lead paint laws, said EPA.

Meanwhile, DOHMH is proposing that the health code be updated. They suggested the mandatory threshold be reduced from 5 mcg/dL to 3.5 mcg/dL for childhood blood lead level reporting and investigation. The DOHMH’s public hearing  will be held on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. 

Mayor Eric Adams’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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