Recent reporting shows that lead poisoning is not limited to the city of Flint, Michigan, although that is certainly a particularly egregious example because it was something that did not have to happen and it did not happen before 1978, when the use of lead paint became illegal; it happened in the 21st century. Lead appeared in the water in Flint when government made a decision to switch the source of water piped into that city without having any testing to examine the quality of water from that new source. They put the poorest people in their community at risk to save money and we all know how that has worked out. I’m guessing they spent more, and will spend even more money for many years, than they ever saved.
Now we are finding high levels of lead in the blood streams of young children who live in public housing in older American cities where there is housing built before 1978. Assumptions were made that Housing authorities had remediated the lead paint in most city housing and therefore testing for flaking, peeling lead paint, or lead paint dust was only being done in properties where problems had appeared fairly recently.
After lead poisoning was found in Flint, children’s blood lead levels began to be taken more seriously in other cities. There is no legal level for lead in the blood. Even small amounts can affect brain development in toddlers and young children. If the paint chips are lying around children often enjoy crunching on them as they have a sweet flavor. I have a vague memory of actually ingesting such a chip sometime in my childhood. When a young girl in NYC was found to have blood lead levels that were much higher than the danger level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) testing on the two apartments (mother and grandmother) where she spent the most time (public housing apartments) tested high with a common test for lead paint. However, the city typically uses a different test which often gives false negatives, because remediation is costly and they like the results of their less reliable test better.
After Flint the federal government got stricter about testing for lead paint and NYC has complied under Mayor Da Blasio. “Once inspections for lead paint were resumed it was found in 80% of the 8,300 apartments tested. A new round of visual checks found peeling paint in 92%. If paint is peeling there is most likely lead present in the paint. For years the city had ignored the blood tests of children with high lead content. Had they paid attention these children would have served as a great early warning that the problem had not been remediated effectively.
Syracuse, NY, with a high level of poverty, has a similar unaddressed lead problem in public housing. Gabriela Knutson, writing in a publication at SU called Off Campus says,
“But what one doesn’t see on this morning is the way the area is one of the highest in the city of Syracuse for high blood lead levels in children. In the area surrounding Delaware Elementary School, as well as the areas to the west of it, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of children have a blood lead level higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
This number is the standard created by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) for the highest level of blood there can be in a child’s body before causing damage. In the City of Syracuse, an average of 11 percent of children exceed that number. Syracuse.com reports that 600 children were poisoned by lead paint in 2017.”
You can find almost the same number in any older rust belt city in America including Buffalo and Rochester, also in New York State.
Besides this very serious problem of peeling and flaking lead paint, public housing is often in dire condition and landlords are often able to show that fixing problems like rat infestations and insect infestations and decaying structural elements would be prohibitively expensive (cut into their profits) and would also just reoccur because of the problems poverty causes the tenants of these properties. Standards are lowered. Year after year properties in decline are rented for far too high a monthly rent, subsidized by all of us, and only problems that cannot be covered up by cheap, quick fixes are addressed. Often even the more in-depth projects do not renovate the property as a whole, but only the most unacceptable aspects of the property.
These problems cost all of us lots of money in terms of children who are left with learning disabilities and who must be given support for the rest of their lives and in terms of the mental toll living in substandard conditions takes on parents and children, a toll which weighs down an entire city. If the Democrats we send to Washington don’t attempt to fix this I doubt that anyone will. It is a maze and deciding who bears the financial responsibility for projects that end substandard housing subsidized by HUD once and for all is problematic when some housing paid for publicly is owned privately. Even when the housing is publicly owned deciding who pays for what, what must be torn down and replaced, what can be brought up to code, and then how we will keep it all in good repair is impossible unless we also address the poverty that will most likely recreate the conditions that plague public housing.
Money, of course, is at the root of all the problems of cities – the flight of the middle class to the suburbs, the flight of industry, the low tax base. We can’t just throw money at the poorest sectors of our cities either. Solid planning must create a plan that is realistic and doable. Such designs also cost money. As a priority though, it seems we need to focus on lead paint and lead poisoning in public housing once again and keep that focus until the problem is really solved, not swept under many a government carpet in many a cash-strapped city.