Lead poisoning is a frightening public health issue that continues to have an impact on New York City’s Black and disadvantaged youth, especially since New York State leads the nation in homes with lead-based paint: an estimated 5.3 million.

In response to this continuing issue, Mayor Eric Adams has released a report about the city’s efforts to combat lead exposure and announced the appointment of Jasmine Blake as the city’s new lead compliance officer.

The city banned lead-based paint back in 1960; tried to legislate against it in the 1980s and ’90s; and passed the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act in 2004, which required building owners to get rid of sources of lead found in many pre-war houses across the city. 

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2022) – “Lead Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/lead-pollution’ [Online Resource]

“Each attempt was met with steep resistance,” said Housing and Buildings Chair Pierina Sanchez at a City Council oversight hearing on April 25. “But [we were] bullish in the assertion and goal that lead poisoning in children is entirely preventable. New York City and its advocacy pushed forward. While these efforts have led to some success, lead poisoning is a hazard faced by a child in this city truly based on their ZIP code and their race.” 

According to City Council stats, there were 111,509 lead paint violations in the city between January 2018 and March 2023. As of March 2023, 45% of all lead-related court cases are concentrated in the Bronx. Brooklyn ranked second for cases. That burden falls mostly on Black and brown children in these neighborhoods.

At the City Council oversight hearing, five bills were reviewed and two new bills introduced. Altogether, the Lead Poisoning Prevention Bill Package included legislation that mandates the removal of lead-based paint on friction surfaces near children and in common areas, thorough records of investigations and objections, more identification and inspection, assessment of kids with elevated blood lead levels, and declaring lead hazards as a public nuisance.

“As nurses, we see firsthand the harm that lead poisoning causes children, especially low-income and Black and brown children in environmental justice communities, where environmental hazards contribute to unacceptable health disparities,” said New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) President Nancy Hagans in a statement. “Fortunately, the New York City Council has the opportunity to address this injustice and improve the life-long health of residents by closing the loopholes in existing lead laws. The time is now.”

Over time, the threshold standard for lead exposure has been lowered to 0.5 milligrams of lead per square centimeter (mcg/cm2) for paint and 5 milligrams of lead per square foot (mcg/ft2) for dust. In March 2022, the health department further reduced the blood lead level threshold from 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) to 3.5 mcg/dL. But even low exposure can cause lasting health impacts, such as permanent neurological disorders, kidney and hearing damage, and concentration problems, as well as lower IQs. Electeds and advocates firmly believe that zero lead exposure is the only acceptably safe level.

Lead piping exposure is also an expensive and hazardous issue that could affect people’s drinking water, said Lonnie Portis, New York City policy and advocacy manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice and a member of the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning (NYCCELP), which are among the groups that have been advocating for an oversight hearing because progress has not been swift enough to meet the original deadline of eliminating lead by 2010. “They’ve identified where [some of] the pipes are, and you have a potential unknown, where you have no idea if they’re lead or not.”

Portis said the city council needs to close the loopholes in existing lead laws and start effectively enforcing the current Local Law 1 of 2004 for landlords to inspect and remediate lead paint hazards.

The LeadFreeNYC plan, released in 2019, invests in lead testing and removal from public housing, rental units in one- and two-family homes, and 600 low-income and privately owned lead service pipelines. It also focuses on ramping up enforcement efforts against landlords who aren’t meeting lead-related obligations. 

“Thanks to these efforts and the intensive work of our city agencies, lead exposure in children has been reduced by 93 percent since 2005,” said Adams in a statement, “but there is still more work to be done.”

On the state level, NYCCELP has continued to advocate for strong legislation against lead. This year, none of the bills made it into the state executive budget recently released by Governor Kathy Hochul. The bills mostly center around buying and selling of pre-1978 housing, compensating victims of childhood lead poisoning, and water utilities properly identifying lead pipes. However, the Landlord Insurance for Lead-Based Paint Act recently passed in the State Assembly and the Lead Pipes Right to Know Act recently passed in the State Senate. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics 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://bit.ly/amnews1.

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