Campaign to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Syracuse by 2025

“What is lead?” we were asked. “How does a child become lead poisoned? What does it do to you?” The questions came with increasingly concerned looks. “Why did my landlord not tell me about dangerous lead paint in the house I’m renting? Why did the United States of America permit lead in paint when Europe had banned it?” The speaker was demanding answers to her questions posed in Swahili, even as the questions were translated into English.

These and other questions came from a group of North Side Syracuse residents at a recent teach-in by Legal Services of Central New York’s Community Counsel Project. The teach-in is part of a project to raise the level of knowledge about, and develop local leadership for, ending childhood lead poisoning in Syracuse. According to one controversial 2009 study by Quest Diagnostics, an estimated 40% of children in portions of Syracuse are identified each year with lead poisoning.

Childhood lead poisoning is a housing problem, a public policy problem, and a community health problem. Perhaps above all, it is a gut-wrenching experience for every parent whose child is discovered with the chemical exposure. The U.S. government banned heavily leaded paint from household use in 1978. Since then, a variety of governmental and non-governmental groups (County health departments, WIC, etc.) have been confronted with the environmental crisis and injured kids – without a solution to the crisis.

The Community Counsel Project is helping organize a comprehensive community approach to stop the poisoning at its greatest source: deteriorating house paint. Through teach-ins, neighborhood canvassing (over 200 homes this past summer), and one-to-one conversations, we seek to build toward coordinated, community action that effectively ends childhood lead poisoning among Syracuse children by 2025.

Lead poisoning is also a problem of equity. Since the construction of I-81 through Syracuse and the phenomenon of “white flight” to the suburbs, newer housing stock is invariably found outside the city. Meanwhile at least 18,000 units (and perhaps as many as 30,000 units) of Syracuse’s rental housing are largely used by low-income, often underemployed city residents, are often poorly maintained, and pose a danger to families with children. Tragically, Syracuse Code Enforcement is well aware of the environmental hazard, but has neither the paid staff nor the legal authority necessary to fix the problem of lead paint in homes.

A campaign to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Syracuse will take focus, will, and energy, but would positively affect the lives of thousands. A 2009 study by Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute estimated that $165-$233 billion will be lost in lifetime earnings in the United States for those adults who were lead poisoned as children between 2000-2006. A study by the University of Rochester’s Katrina Korfmacher in 2002 estimated that New York State was losing $78 million yearly in tax revenue due to reduced earnings from lead poisoning

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the negative effects from lead exposure likely depends on both the amount of lead paint or dust a child ingests or breathes in, respectively, and how long the lead stays in the body. Infrequent exposure means lead in the blood may be eliminated through the kidneys without much, if any, harm. But in a house with deteriorating leaded paint, where exposure is frequent enough that the lead builds up in the blood, then lodges in the bones and soft tissues, the toxic substance can  reach the brain. At the brain, lead causes a traumatic brain injury.

Study after study report a higher incidence of thinking, planning, and behavioral problems throughout childhood after lead poisoning. To date, the CDC acknowledges that there is no known level of lead at which some form of injury cannot be expected. Medical studies show an increasing loss of IQ points starting at the lowest level of one microgram per deciliter (1 ug/dL) of a child’s blood.

Lead is a blue-gray metal that is soft and malleable. Lead’s sweet taste – the ancient Romans added lead to wine to enhance its sweetness – is one reason why a crawling child would ingest paint chips. And where you have the oldest housing stock – built before 1955 – you have homes that used leaded paint with the highest concentrations (as much as one-half of a gallon of paint was lead). Close to 60% of Syracuse’s housing stock falls into that category.

Given extensive knowledge about lead’s toxicity, both the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development have mandated that landlords inform renters that lead paint is in the house, and provide a brochure with guidance on how to avoid lead poisoning.

But at our evening’s teach-in we learned that one renter, a mother recently resettled as a refugee from Congo, had never been told of lead paint in the three-bedroom house she rents for herself and her four kids. Within a year, her two year-old was diagnosed with a very high concentration of lead in her blood, and forced to undergo dangerous chelation therapy – twice – to reduce the blood lead level. The Onondaga Department of Health was informed, and a DOH official ordered the landlord to remove the peeling paint that was the likely site of exposure. While lead’s precise effect(s) vary from child to child, the anxious mother cried before us that night over the unknown future of her once completely healthy child.

We believe a community solution will involve parents, property owners, tenants, city and county health officials, and foundations and housing non-profits. Cooperation from landlords will help. But a comprehensive change to the local housing ordinance – similar to what was accomplished in Rochester in 2005 – which spells out the needed change to interior lead paint hazards, would be ideal. This ideal can, perhaps, best come about from pressure by civic leaders and an organized, educated citizenry, newly attuned to their power to obtain governmental oversight of the housing stock. City residents and their leaders must ensure that the right to affordable housing includes a right to safe housing.

Governmental leadership that understands the challenges presented by lead poisoning will also help. With the arrival of newly elected leaders in Syracuse, who are better aware of the threat lead poses to our children’s future, we have reason to hope that positive change will come. The health and well-being of thousands is riding on that hope. š