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.”

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