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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New York City Struggles Against Lead

Air Date: Week of

Neal Rauch reports from New York City on the emotional debate over new lead abatement laws. Different legislators have varying ideas on how to cope with the continuing health problems associated with exposure to lead that is especially dangerous for young children.


CURWOOD: More than 60 million dwelling units in the US have some lead paint in them. That's about two thirds of the nation's housing. In many of these homes the actual risk of lead poisoning is fairly low because the lead paint is intact, covered by layers of other paint. But as soon as the lead starts to come off the building in chips or dust, people are in serious danger. And this can happen because of poor maintenance or, ironically, good maintenance. The family that renovates an old house can stir up lots of lead dust. If it's not removed by special vacuum cleaners, it's virtually guaranteed to poison the family. Perhaps nowhere is lead poisoning more common than New York City, which has plenty of renovations and shabby housing. A 1982 city law was supposed to solve the problem, but it's been largely ignored, and thousands of kids continue to be poisoned every year. Now New York is trying to write a new lead abatement law, which will actually work. But as Neal Rauch reports, it's been slow going. The two sides can't even agree on what abatement means.

(A baby gurgles, a mother talks to it)

RAUCH: For the last 6 months, Monique Smith and her 4 children have lived in one of New York City's 2 lead-safe houses. Her apartment is contaminated with lead dust, and her 3-year-old daughter Deja has been lead poisoned.

SMITH: She doesn't eat well. Stomach cramps, abdominal pain. She has a lot of behavioral problems. Hyper, don't listen. You have to constantly keep talking to her over and over again, and she still don't listen.

RAUCH: Monique Smith is worried about Deja's future.

SMITH: I don't know how she's going to end up. I don't know, you know, she could end up in special aid. She could end up having, you know, different things wrong with her. I don't know what's going to happen as she gets older, because right now the lead is not going down. It's sticking to her bones and is not going down. I've been here for almost 6 months and it hasn't went down at all.

(A child yells in the background)

RAUCH: Monique Smith blames her landlord for dragging his feet on making her home lead safe. Her situation is far from unique. A 1982 New York City law was supposed to deal with the persistent problem of lead poisoning in children caused by flaking paint. But the law's author, City Councilman Stanley Michaels, now admits it didn't work. There are 2 million apartments with lead based paint in New York and the vast majority have yet to be cleaned up. And the City, which is the largest landlord in New York, has never adequately enforced the law, despite being found in contempt of court.

MICHAELS: The fact is there was nothing enforced and not been applying, I'd say it was unsuccessful. I'm very unhappy about the fact that we perhaps could have saved more children than we have.

RAUCH: Now Stanley Michaels, who heads the council's Committee on Environmental Protection, is proposing a new bill that would clarify and toughen provisions in the old law which have allowed it to be tied up in court for years. His bill would be more specific in terms of when an apartment is in violation and what a landlord must do to correct the situation. It would also require property owners to deal with the problem in a certain amount of time or face increasing fines. In addition, it would expand the law to cover public spaces such as schools and daycare centers. Councilman Michael's proposal is one of 2 competing plans to revise the 1982 lead law. The other was sponsored by Housing Committee Chairman Archie Sprigner. Councilman Sprigner believes the problem with the old law was not that it was too loose, but that it was too tough, especially on landlords. He says the biggest obstacle to cleanup is cost. Currently, landlords have to foot the entire bill, possibly tens of thousands of dollars a unit for total lead removal. Councilman Sprigner wants to allow landlords to pass along these costs to tenants.

SPRIGNER: If a landlord has to do major abatements, unless we find a way to give grants or tax abatements, the money's got to come from somewhere, and I'm not at this point ready to say that we can immunize the tenants. I mean if it's a cost of running a building, it's a cost of running a building.

RAUCH: Councilman Sprigner's actual bill is still taking shape, and he's been willing to compromise on other provisions. Like the one that would have required tenants to notify landlords of a potential lead problem by certified mail. Detractors charge that would have intimidated low income, poorly educated renters. But Stanley Michaels says Councilman Sprigner's bill is still a bad approach.

MICHAELS: It tries to do away with the health regulations by the Health Department. There's very little accountability; they say landlord can self certify that he did the work, and we know in this city, when checked upon, 25% of all self-certification proves to be false.

RAUCH: Despite their substantial differences, the 2 sides to agree that the current court-ordered standard of making apartments lead free is unrealistic. They both say they want housing to be lead safe. But they disagree on exactly how to define that key term.

MICHAELS: Lead safe is where you have a condition where the paint is peeling, chipping, or where you have an area where there is a constant abrasiveness, when a door opens and closes all the time, windows go up and down. Or areas where we know that children of the tender age of 5 years or under chew on because of the availability there, when they're teething, like a window sill. Those areas have to be made safe.

RAUCH: For Councilman Michaels, that means either a complete removal of the old paint from these areas or at least covering them with a hard sealant, a less expensive approach called encapsulation. But Archie Sprigner's definition of lead safe would establish an even lower standard.

SPRIGNER: Right now, we don't believe that encapsulating and covering whatever a chewable surface is, I don't know what a kid can get his teeth around, you know, it's just not necessary to ensure the health and safety of the kid. They should be painted, intact, not peeling, on a sound subsurface.

RAUCH: The New York debate is taking place in the absence of Federal standards on lead poisoning and abatement. And Don Ryan, Executive Director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Washington, DC, says that makes it even more difficult for localities to act.

RYAN: We need to have clear national standards on what conditions constitute a hazard. How much lead contaminated dust on a floor is too much. We need clear Federal standards on, for an abatement contractor, what qualifications and training are necessary.

RAUCH: In 1992, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with such standards, and they're expected to be issued later this year. Don Ryan says with these Federal standards in place, states and localities can finally craft better laws to address the issue. He says these laws should do 3 things.

RYAN: First, it has got to prevent children's exposure to lead instead of simply reacting to already poisoned children. Second, children's homes must be made safe from lead hazards, not necessarily lead free. And third, the law has got to make very clear and specific what steps property owners, especially rental property owners, need to take in order to control lead hazards.

RAUCH: Even with Federal standards and a clearer local law, tackling New York's lead paint problem will be an enormous challenge. The number of city housing inspectors has fallen drastically, and the city's safe houses for people with contaminated apartments can only accommodate 10 families. In the meantime the New York Public Interest Research Group says the number of lead poisoned children is rising even as the number of kids tested has fallen. The majority of children never get tested.

(A girl babbles, then cries, in the background)

MAN: She's irritated, she moves and she don't sleep like she used to. Every 3, 4, hours she wakes up.

MARTINEZ: Anything more than this is too much. It's no good.

MAN: She's 26.

MARTINEZ: That's too much for her. She's too little to be carrying around that much.

RAUCH: At the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, Mary Martinez counsels a father of a 2-year-old girl being treated for lead poisoning.

MAN: How this problem's going to affect her future?

MARTINEZ: Right now, it would be hard to say. Each child is a very individual kind of a case.

BILLINGS: Any council member who votes in favor of the landlord lobby bill should be embarrassed to death...

RAUCH: Not surprisingly, the debate over the revised lead law has become highly emotional. Supporters of a strengthened law recently held a press conference in front of City Hall, at which Lucy Billings of Bronx Legal Services spoke about the risks of weakening the law or even leaving things as they are.

BILLINGS: ... it's costing us $40,000 just to get the lead out of those children's blood. That's to keep them from being harmed any further. They've already experienced irreversible harm that's costing our special education systems, our social services systems, our public assistance systems. I mean talk about child abuse. This is worse than the lack of child protection that is going on at the Child Welfare Administration.

(Applause from the crowd)

RAUCH: The situation may not change any time soon. Both sides in the dispute say they have come closer together on a number of key issues, but they remain far apart on others. And promised public hearings on reforming New York City's lead paint law already have been delayed several times. For Living on Earth I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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