Inside Upstate New York’s Lead Poisoning Crisis
New York has no statewide system of mandatory proactive inspections of old housing likely to contain lead hazards. | Wikimedia Commons

Inside Upstate New York’s Lead Poisoning Crisis

Many upstate cities don't test old houses for lead poisoning until after children have already tested positive. A new bill would change that.

Published in partnership with with City & State.

Syracuse mother Darlene Medley discovered in 2018 after a routine health screening that her two-year-old twins, Rashad and Devon, had lead poisoning.

“My twins are completely different and I know it’s because of the lead,” Medley said in an interview. “The way Rashad spoke before the lead was really good — if you see him now, he’s four but he talks like a two year old. This landlord poisoned my most precious things.” 

Now, Medley remains in the same home with her sons, weary of the hazards, not on speaking terms with her landlord after dealing with multiple unsuccessful eviction threats, facing ongoing problems with mice, and with few options left in the city of Syracuse. Medley’s landlord did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

As a result of speaking up about lead poisoning, Darlene says she is having a hard time finding landlords willing to rent to her. “I’m what you call ‘blacklisted’ here. It’s looking like we’re going to have to move to a completely different city,” she said.

Lead poisoning in New York City attracted attention last month when a federal monitor revealed that 9,000 of the city’s public housing units likely contain lead paint. But lead poisoning is even more prevalent upstate, in old housing like Medley’s gray-shingled home in Syracuse, where one out of ten children have elevated blood lead levels. In 2017, 25 upstate counties had higher percentages of children testing positive for lead poisoning than in Flint, Michigan at the height of its crisis, when it attracted national attention after damaged pipes seeped lead into its water supply.

New York has more children with lead poisoning than any state. Though just over a third of children take the mandatory tests, 11,227 children tested positive for lead poisoning in 2017.

The problem falls disproportionately on poorer children of color, who often live in older, ill-maintained housing stock. In Buffalo, children in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods are 12 times more likely to get lead poisoning than children in white neighborhoods.

There is no amount at which lead exposure is considered safe, and once a child has been poisoned, the damage is irreversible. Lead exposure at low levels can cause behavioral problems, ADHD, and slowed growth and development. At higher levels it can result in high blood pressure, organ failure, heart disease, kidney disease, and death.

“Using children as testing strips”

New York has no statewide system of mandatory proactive inspections of old housing likely to contain lead hazards, a method of lead poisoning prevention known as “primary prevention.”

“Our method of identification is using children as testing strips. We detect lead in homes after a child has been irreversibly damaged,” said Rebecca Garrard, a campaign manager at the progressive non-profit Citizens Action.

The state’s system of “secondary prevention” – inspecting homes for lead after children have already have already tested positive for lead poisoning, and relying on landlords to repair lead-poisoned housing – is underfunded and often inadequately enforced, advocates said.

Garrard, along with a coalition of housing and environmental advocates, is working with state Sen. Brian Kavanagh to introduce a new bill in the next legislative session that would create and fund a statewide primary prevention program of proactive inspections of areas with hazardous housing, and strengthen the state’s weak code enforcement system.

“We’ve had enormous focus on lead poisoning in New York City but the truth is that lead poisoning is all too common across the state,” Kavanagh said. “We need to make sure that we make sure we meet our obligations to provide safe, decent places for people to live, especially children vulnerable to lead poisoning.”

A Broken Code Enforcement System

Under the current system, buildings with lead paint issues are often identified after children take state-mandated blood tests at ages one and two. If they are found to have blood lead levels higher than 5 µg/dl, local health officials pair the child with a medical case worker and nutritional counseling, if deemed appropriate, and may inspect the child’s home for lead paint. If the inspectors find lead, health officials order landlords to address the problem, a process that can include painting over walls with chipping paint, replacing windows and doors, or more drastic repairs.

Although landlords are legally prohibited from leaving homes in unsafe conditions, county health departments and city code enforcement agencies often struggle to compel them to make the necessary repairs.

A lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Letitia James against a group of Buffalo landlords, Angel Dalfin, Lorraine Dalfin, and property manager Paul Heil, alleges that they failed to address lead hazards in their 157 properties, even after the county Department of Health ordered them to do so.

Buffalo mother Cassandra Brenner said she suffered the consequences of the negligence firsthand when all three of her children got lead poisoning while living in one of Dalfin’s properties in 2018. Court documents allege that she and her children were evicted before the landlord made repairs, which came more than six months after health officials had ordered them made.

“Why was it my babies, why was it my angels? Why is their cross to bear? I’m still grieving the fact that my kids have been tampered with,” Brenner said in an interview.

Attorneys Daniel J. Tarantino and Jeffrey Stravino, who represent Angel Dalfin, declined to comment on the allegations against their client. Court documents filed by Stravino allege that Dalfin was not properly served, that the court does not have jurisdiction over him, and that the attorney general’s allegations are not supported by proof in the record.

Upstate municipalities have separate code enforcement agencies that also discover lead threats during their own inspections. But according to housing advocates, they are even less effective than county health departments in compelling landlords to make homes safe for children.

 “In one case I had, local code enforcement gave the landlords thirty days to fix lead hazards,” Laura Felts, executive director of tenants rights organization United Tenants of Albany, said. “Then they kept giving them 30 days, 30 days, 30 days, but the kid still had lead poisoning! It was five months with no repairs, and then I just told the tenant to call the county health inspector.”

In other cases, she said, tenants leave in order to avoid the hazards, leaving others to come in and encounter them anew.

“A Completely Meaningless Committee”

New York City has a city building code and enforcement mechanisms in place that more successfully compel landlords to fix lead hazards, according to Matthew Chachere, a housing lawyer who helped draft the city’s lead ordinance. If landlords do not address these issues promptly, then inspectors from Housing Preservation and Development must do so.

New York City and Rochester also mandate proactive inspections of properties. Other municipalities, including Buffalo, Albany, Utica, and Auburn, do not.

As a result, a child is much more likely to be lead poisoned if she lives in Buffalo than in Rochester, despite the two cities having similar rates of poverty and old housing.

Replacing the current patchwork of lead-control policies with a statewide mandate, Garrard said, would help to close these regional gaps.

For years, Chachere said, he and other appointees to the state’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Council, which is supposed to advise the Department of Health on lead poisoning initiatives, have pushed the state to adopt uniform building code regulations similar to New York City’s and Rochester’s and to strengthen code enforcement across the state.

In practice, Chachere said, the council is “a completely meaningless committee that meets once or twice a year.”

“It would be difficult to ascertain if [the council’s] had an impact on state policy,” said Morri Markowitz, another council member who heads a lead resource center in Hudson Valley.

A DOH press spokesperson contested this characterization, saying that the DOH had “changed the definition of an elevated blood lead level in children from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5 micrograms per deciliter” and approved “recommendations from the Council on how to best implement the statewide outreach” in response to advice from council appointees.

“Here’s a mandate. Where’s the manpower?”

After New York state implemented a lower blood-lead level reference of 5 µg/dl in 2019 – the level at which the state considers it mandatory to intervene in a child’s case – the state Department of Health estimated that 16,000 more homes would be considered likely to contain lead than before, when the reference level was 10 µg/dl. More children would also need case management for lead poisoning.

County health officials warned they would need $30 million more for additional housing inspectors, lead detection machines, and nurses. But the state did not increase funding for its lead poisoning prevention efforts.

“The complaints I hear from the county departments of health are, ‘Here’s a mandate, where’s the manpower? Where are the machines?” Markowitz said, referring to X-ray fluorescence machines that are used to detect lead paint in homes.

“We have one nurse for the lead program and her caseload went up five times. So it’s just impossible,” said Stan Schaffer, a pediatrician who oversees a lead poisoning resource center in Rochester.

Katrina Korfmacher, an environmental medicine professor at the University of Rochester, suggested that many of the problems with the state’s existing framework could be eliminated through proactive inspections.

“If we had better primary prevention, we wouldn’t need to be tracking down kids through secondary prevention, tracking down landlords to do repairs—eventually none of this would be necessary,” she said.

A New Lead Poisoning Law for 2021

A coalition of environmental advocates and housing organizations, including Citizens Action of New York, Environmental Advocates of New York, United Tenants of Albany, and Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, is working to create a statewide system of primary prevention through state legislation.

The bill, which is still being drafted, is expected to create a uniform statewide code enforcement system for inspecting homes for lead paint and lead water hazards, a publicly available statewide database on lead violations, and multi-year funding for inspections and repairs.

Kavanagh, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it will be introduced in January. He and Garrard both said the bill would likely have a system to forestall the kind of retaliation Medley and Brenner said they experienced from their landlords, protecting tenants from landlords who might harass or evict them for demanding lead repairs.

“If municipalities receive state aid through this bill, then they should have to make sure that tenants don’t get displaced as a result of repairs,” Garrard said. She is pushing for the bill to mandate rent rebates for tenants rather than fines to landlords, which could be passed on to tenants in the form of increased rent.

For her part, Darlene Medley continues to struggle on behalf of other renters as a leader in the Syracuse-based coalition Families for Lead Freedom Now.

“You could fill up a whole elementary school building with all the kids poisoned by lead in Syracuse,” she said. “This should’ve been addressed a long time ago, but that’s why we’ve got to do it now.”

Gas plant in Newburgh tests limits of NY’s landmark climate law
Gas plant in Newburgh tests limits of NY’s landmark climate law
Can New York meet its emissions goals if it green-lights more fossil fuel infrastructure? A proposal to rebuild a fracked-gas plant will set the precedent....

By

Health Care Costs for Retired City Workers Could Dramatically Increase Under City Plan
Health Care Costs for Retired City Workers Could Dramatically Increase Under City Plan
A quarter million retired city workers could be left with bigger health insurance bills and fewer doctor choices under a city plan to change their health insurance....

By

A New Threat to New York’s Clean Energy Goals: Bitcoin Mining
A New Threat to New York’s Clean Energy Goals: Bitcoin Mining
A Finger Lakes power plant plans to ramp up energy-intensive Bitcoin mining. If the state allows it to proceed, environmentalists warn dozens of fossil-fueled plants could follow....

By

Thousands of New Yorkers are in Prison for Life. These D.A. Candidates Want to Change That
Thousands of New Yorkers are in Prison for Life. These D.A. Candidates Want to Change That
Manhattan D.A. candidates vow to reduce lengthy sentences—but sharp differences between their approaches remain...

By

What Made It Into The Budget – And What Was Left Out
What Made It Into The Budget – And What Was Left Out
The major provisions of New York's 2021 budget....

By , and

Homelessness Priorities Won’t Make the State Budget, Lawmakers and Advocates Say
Homelessness Priorities Won’t Make the State Budget, Lawmakers and Advocates Say
“A year from now, this money will still be in the hands of Governor Cuomo, unused - and that’s exactly what he wants.”...

By

“A byzantine and high-bar system”: Governor pushes to saddle undocumented workers fund with documentation requirements
“A byzantine and high-bar system”: Governor pushes to saddle undocumented workers fund with documentation requirements
State lawmakers and workers' rights advocates warned that burdensome proof-of-employment requirements may mean the funds go unspent....

By

Will New York’s Rent Relief Program Address The Problems that Hobbled The Last One?
Will New York’s Rent Relief Program Address The Problems that Hobbled The Last One?
Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing to impose stringent requirements, according to lawmakers and tenant advocates, that could delay and decrease aid....

By

Where are the Safe Injection Facilities Cuomo Promised for New York?
Where are the Safe Injection Facilities Cuomo Promised for New York?
He committed three years ago to supporting safe injection sites for drug users — then reversed course, activists say. Now, they see a new chance to pressure the embattled governor....

By

Legislature Seeks to End “Arbitrary Limit” on Medicaid Spending
Legislature Seeks to End “Arbitrary Limit” on Medicaid Spending
A 2011 rule prevents New York from adequately funding Medicaid, advocates say. This year’s budget could see it repealed. ...

By

Will Rental Vouchers to Prevent Homelessness Make the State Budget?
Will Rental Vouchers to Prevent Homelessness Make the State Budget?
The legislature is pushing for a statewide rental assistance program that advocates say would be one the largest efforts to combat homelessness in recent memory....

By

New York’s biggest climate problem—and opportunity
New York’s biggest climate problem—and opportunity
Buildings may be New York’s top source of emissions. The state should follow the city’s lead in cleaning them up....

By

In an Upstate Jail, Incarcerated People Struggle to Access Promised Addiction Treatment
In an Upstate Jail, Incarcerated People Struggle to Access Promised Addiction Treatment
In 2019, Broome County promised an addiction treatment program in its jail. Two years later, the program is a “farce,” one advocate said. ...

By

Records Reveal New York’s Growing Mountain of Water Debt
Records Reveal New York’s Growing Mountain of Water Debt
Advocates are pushing the legislature to extend and strengthen a moratorium on water shutoffs set to expire at the end of the month....

By

Legislative Leadership to Propose $7 Billion in New Taxes, Sources Say
Legislative Leadership to Propose $7 Billion in New Taxes, Sources Say
Tax-the-rich advocates critiqued the figure as too low, and also said the Assembly is significantly behind the Senate on key progressive spending priorities....

By

Queens Public Defenders Win Unionization Vote
Queens Public Defenders Win Unionization Vote
After months of conflict involving alleged intimidation and potentially illegal firings, workers at Queens Defenders voted overwhelmingly to unionize....

By

“It Damages Democracy:” Watchdogs, Reporters, Slam “Non-Functional” Board of Elections Campaign Finance Website
“It Damages Democracy:” Watchdogs, Reporters, Slam “Non-Functional” Board of Elections Campaign Finance Website
Flaws in an updated website make it extremely difficult to track who is funding campaigns, journalists and watchdogs say, but the BOE insists that “the site is fully functioning.” ...

By

Will New York allow incarcerated people to access treatment for drug addiction?
Will New York allow incarcerated people to access treatment for drug addiction?
"People in prison deserve healthcare, and this is healthcare.” Legislators push to offer treatment for drug addiction in jails and prisons...

By

“Mired in Incrementalism”: Climate Action Council Proceedings Alarm Climate Advocates
“Mired in Incrementalism”: Climate Action Council Proceedings Alarm Climate Advocates
Under New York's climate law, the Climate Action Council is tasked with devising a plan to zero out emissions. Environmentalists on the Council say it's not on track....

By

In Manhattan D.A. Race, Momentum Builds to Decriminalize Sex Work
In Manhattan D.A. Race, Momentum Builds to Decriminalize Sex Work
In a striking sign of activists' success, most candidates running in the June election for DA say they would not prosecute cases involving consensual sex work....

By

“We Need to Hold Him Accountable”: After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Legislators Search for Ways to Respond
“We Need to Hold Him Accountable”: After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Legislators Search for Ways to Respond
With the state ethics commission widely seen as controlled by the governor, legislators are looking for other ways to investigate the allegations....

By

Top state lawmakers oppose Cuomo’s push to override NYC’s landmark climate law
Top state lawmakers oppose Cuomo’s push to override NYC’s landmark climate law
A new analysis finds that the governor’s proposal would “completely undermine” New York City’s climate law, setting the stage for a clash with the newly emboldened legislature....

By

As State Support Dwindles, New York’s Overdose Crisis is Only Getting Worse
As State Support Dwindles, New York’s Overdose Crisis is Only Getting Worse
State withholds have left harm reduction providers undersupplied, and informal overdose prevention networks are struggling to fill the gap....

By

Queens Defenders Fires Two Pro-Union Employees
Queens Defenders Fires Two Pro-Union Employees
Amid an ongoing union election at the Queens indigent defense law firm, two outspoken union supporters were fired without warning....

By

“It’s a life or death situation out here”: a brutal winter for unsheltered New Yorkers
“It’s a life or death situation out here”: a brutal winter for unsheltered New Yorkers
“We sleep together like chickens”: Street homeless New Yorkers describe the struggle to endure the pandemic-era winter....

By

Will Manhattan’s Next D.A. Break Ranks With Tough-on-Crime Colleagues?
Will Manhattan’s Next D.A. Break Ranks With Tough-on-Crime Colleagues?
Three candidates in the June election say they would not join the association of state DAs, which has fought measures such as bail reform....

By

“What am I to do?” An oral history of mothering children in online school
“What am I to do?” An oral history of mothering children in online school
“I’m the security guard, a mother, a father, a teacher, I’m everything." Parents and children reflect on a year of remote learning and its impact on their finances, mental health, and family....

By

Will New York Decriminalize Syringe Possession in 2021?
Will New York Decriminalize Syringe Possession in 2021?
Amid dramatic spikes in drug overdoses and HIV cases, legislators and public health professionals push for New York to decriminalize sterile syringes. ...

By

Cuomo’s Tax Hike Friendlier to the Rich Than Advertised, Budget Experts and Legislators Say
Cuomo’s Tax Hike Friendlier to the Rich Than Advertised, Budget Experts and Legislators Say
"The governor’s twisting himself in knots to not offend rich people,” the number two Democrat in the state Senate said....

By

Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s Run for Manhattan D.A. Fueled By Wall St Megadonors, Filings Show
Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s Run for Manhattan D.A. Fueled By Wall St Megadonors, Filings Show
A leading candidate for Manhattan DA has raked in two thirds of her campaign funds from five-figure donations—many from financial industries she would be in charge of prosecuting....

By

NYC Plans to Import Canadian Hydropower. Who Really Benefits?
NYC Plans to Import Canadian Hydropower. Who Really Benefits?
A planned transmission line from Canada is meant to reduce NYC's fossil fuel dependence. But First Nations say the project ignores them - and New York environmental advocates say it won't even benefit...

By

Progressives Slam State Senate Finance Secretary Pick
Progressives Slam State Senate Finance Secretary Pick
Democratic leadership appointed David Friedfel, the top state policy analyst at the Citizens Budget Commission, to a key staff position in budget negotiations....

By and

The Next Mayor Must Launch a Green New Deal for NYC
The Next Mayor Must Launch a Green New Deal for NYC
Here are the policies candidates for Mayor and Council must commit to enacting if they're serious about a Green New Deal for New York City....

By

Queens Public Defenders Push to Unionize. Management Calls Them a ‘Mob.’
Queens Public Defenders Push to Unionize. Management Calls Them a ‘Mob.’
A wave of legal aid attorneys are joining the labor movement. But bosses say it’s bad for business and the unions just want to collect their dues....

By

Tenants Can’t Pay Rent. Landlords Won’t Pay Bills. What Happens Next?
Tenants Can’t Pay Rent. Landlords Won’t Pay Bills. What Happens Next?
New York’s looming foreclosure crisis could lead to massive corporate windfalls - or to large-scale social housing conversions. The choice is ours....

By

New York Must Stop All Evictions. It’s a Matter of Life and Death.
New York Must Stop All Evictions. It’s a Matter of Life and Death.
New York must immediately reinstate a complete eviction moratorium, incoming DSA legislators argue, because you can’t stay at home if you’re forced out of it....

By and

Senate Proposes $4 Billion December Revenue Package, but Assembly Won’t Go That High, Sources Say
Senate Proposes $4 Billion December Revenue Package, but Assembly Won’t Go That High, Sources Say
The Senate has proposed raising $4 billion in revenue before the end of the year, but the Assembly is unwilling go much higher than $2 billion, sources say....

By

Assembly Speaker Heastie May be Holding Up Blanket Eviction Moratorium, Despite Senate Consensus
Assembly Speaker Heastie May be Holding Up Blanket Eviction Moratorium, Despite Senate Consensus
Sources both inside and outside the legislature say Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is pushing back against the Senate Democrats' proposal for a blanket moratorium....

By

The D.A. Election That Could Reshape New York City’s War On Drugs
The D.A. Election That Could Reshape New York City’s War On Drugs
The office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor is on the chopping block in Manhattan's 2021 DA race....

By

Inside Upstate New York’s Lead Poisoning Crisis
Inside Upstate New York’s Lead Poisoning Crisis
Many upstate cities don't test old houses for lead poisoning until after children have already tested positive. A new bill would change that....

By

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Be the first to hear about our stories - and get a nugget of NY history each week!