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Will the City Get the Lead Out?

Lead paint peeling from walls in Bushwick. Photos by Peter Krebs.
Lead paint peeling from walls in Bushwick. Photos by Peter Krebs.

It was Friday, September 19, and in City Council chambers this meant a third day of hearings since July on new lead paint legislation. On Grove Street, in Bushwick, it meant Vevidiana Padilla was watching television with her son, Brian. The 15-month-old with wide cocoa eyes and a toddler’s plucky gait recently had his blood lead level measured: it is high enough for Padilla to worry (seven), but not yet high enough for Brian to be considered lead-poisoned (10) or to trigger environmental intervention by the city (20).

On the same Friday afternoon, as hurricane winds sped clouds across the blue sky over Grove Street, neighborhood schoolchildren crowded onto a bench in front of the headquarters of Make the Road, a non-profit organization that spearheads efforts to improve housing and economic justice for residents in Bushwick. Staff and volunteers of the grassroots outfit know Padilla well. They have seen her kitchen, across the street from their offices, where a patch-up job over the home’s original decaying paint is already yellowing, and where no one—neither the family nor the new landlord—has touched the windowsills thick with the dust of crumbled paint.

Since early last summer, the city’s lead-paint policy has been in flux. On July 1—in part because of the rallying efforts of Make the Road—the state’s highest court ordered the repeal of Local Law 38, a 1999 law that the court ruled had been passed without adequate environmental analysis. With Local Law 38 trashed, the city reverted to an outdated 1982 law and opened the floor for Intro 101-A, a bill lauded by community activists but which has received a cooler reception from City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Exposure to lead paint is shown to cause brain damage in children: at what blood lead level seems to be debatable, but the city tends to start paying attention at levels exceeding 10 micrograms per deciliter, or mcg/dL. Last year, eight children tested in New York City had blood lead levels six times that or higher—a level of medical emergency according to Dr. Thomas Frieden, commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (D.O.H.M.H.). Because most affected children show no outward symptoms of poisoning, since 1993 the state has mandated that children be tested when they are one- and two-years-old.

Brian Padilla was tested just after his first birthday, and while he is not "lead-poisoned" according to the department standard of 10 mcg/dL or higher, last year almost 4,000 other children in New York City were. This marks a dramatic drop from the nearly 20,000 children at that level in 1995. Opponents of Intro 101-A, such as city health commissioner Frieden, argue that the decline in childhood lead poisoning in New York City "is a success story, however, it is as yet an unfinished story." Nevertheless, the bill’s backers aim to hasten that decline, and in the process they have been squaring off with Speaker Miller in order to reach their goal.

About five miles south of Padilla’s apartment in Bushwick is Boerum Hill, a neighborhood of brick and brownstone row houses in the shadow of public housing projects. The incidence of lead paint poisoning here is less pervasive than in Padilla’s neighborhood: experts don’t include Boerum Hill in Brooklyn’s lead belt. The pre-1960 brownstones there have been converted into modern homes, gutted, and rebuilt from scrap. Walls once colored in lead-based paint have been destroyed, the threat to neighborhood children eradicated. "Where buildings are so desired—where they’ve been re-hauled and renovated—you have less of a problem," says Jonathan B. Nelson, a New York City trial attorney who represents lead-poisoned children.

Forty-four percent of lead-poisoned children reported in New York City last year lived in Brooklyn. A lead belt runs from Williamsburg-Bushwick through Bedford-Stuyvesant and East Flatbush and into West Queens. Along with Fordham-Bronx Park, the four Brooklyn neighborhoods accounted for more than a third of lead poisoning cases in 2002.

In Bushwick—a community of about 130,000 residents—64 of every 1,000 children are affected, twice the Brooklyn average, according to Make the Road. "Bushwick suffers the highest rate of new cases of childhood lead poisoning in New York City," says Manuel Castro, coordinator of the environmental justice program there. And the threat disproportionately affects minorities: Bushwick residents are primarily low-income Latinos and African-Americans. In 2002, nine percent of lead-poisoned children were white, according to the D.O.H.M.H.; 37 percent were Latino, 36 percent were African-American, and 18 percent were Asian.

The demographic breakdown has resulted in charges of "environmental racism," which have been wagered at Speaker Miller. Critics accuse Miller of sidelining Intro 101-A, and of stalling the approval process since July. Mayor Bloomberg’s office has spoken out against the bill, highlighting the estimated cost to the city of implementing the legislation’s corrective measures. "Intro 101-A is not the answer," Dr. Frieden testified at an early hearing. The commissioner says the language of Intro 101-A is vague and difficult to interpret and would divert resources from communities of greatest need. Frieden estimates the cost to his department as upwards of $60 million per year.

Both the Mayor and the Speaker have used the testimony and research presented by the D.O.H.M.H. and the Center for Disease Control (C.D.C.) to argue that action on lead paint should focus on prevention rather than correction: educational campaigns rather than mandatory abatement measures for landlords. In response, Dr. Bruce Lamphear of the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, testified that education should not offset more aggressive forms of prevention. "The city relies on mothers passing out flyers because it’s cheap," he said. "The city waits for a child to get sick and then acts, only after that child has already been poisoned."

Under Intro 101-A, this would change. The legislation redefines key standards: for the amount of lead in painted surfaces, the "environmental intervention" blood lead level for children, and the age bracket for children in focus. The bill broadens these standards to hold landlords responsible for lead-safe housing and makes them adhere to tough guidelines for the abatement of lead paint and lead dust, which is defined for the first time in Intro 101-A as a source of lead poison. The bill forces landlords to make repairs in homes within 60 to 90 days: if the landlord fails to do so, the city would be required to make the repairs for them and charge the landlord for costs.

Many advocates of the bill, including the environmental task force at Make the Road, say Intro 101-A is the best place to start eradicating the lead threat in New York City. At each of the recent hearings activists have recounted their experience as the parents of lead-poisoned children, as advocates for community renewal, and as voices for the poor and immigrant communities most affected by lead paint poisoning. The 36 City Council members who support Intro 101-A believe the new bill demonstrates that the voices of local community activists have been heard.

The campaigners found an ally in City Council majority leader Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan), the self-appointed ringleader for Intro 101-A. Speaker Miller’s resistance to the bill has clashed with overwhelming support within the Council— rallied by Perkins. The Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus quickly made Intro 101-A their top priority when it was introduced by Perkins. The effort has cornered Miller into supporting at least some version of the legislation—although currently his objections to the bill persist.

"Perkins has a thorn in his side, and I like that. But the Speaker wants Perkins to compromise," says Paul Washington, chief of staff at Perkins’s office. The support within the Council, however, has enabled Perkins to stand fast on the bill.

Part of what Intro 101-A mandates is that landlords who rent to families with children seven years old and under must take action on their property to ensure the homes meet rigorous lead paint standards. The bill thus extends the age of children from six to seven years old, a move Dr. Frieden denounces. "Extending the age to children under seven years of age from children under six years of age directs resources to an age group at lower risk," he testified at the July hearing, noting that in this way Intro 101-A diverts even from federal standards.

The commissioner also condemns the bill’s change in the "environmental intervention" blood lead level—from the federal standard of 20 mcg/dL to 15 mcg/dL—arguing that the move diverts resources from those groups in greatest need. Advocates of the bill, however, say enough evidence exists to merit the change, indicating the hazard of lead exposure at any level in a child’s blood. "No level is a safe level," testified Lamphear.

Intro 101-A sets the goal for reducing the annual citywide number of newly identified lead paint poisoned children to 250 by 2005. In the last several years, that number has averaged around 800 cases per year, ranging from more than 1,200 in 1996 to about 450 new cases in 2001. With the enduring lead paint condition in her home, Vevidiana Padilla worries on which side of those numbers her son Brian will fall. "We tried to find another apartment, but it was too hard," she says.

From her front stoop, Padilla can see a colorful mural behind the corner park that promotes Make the Road. The park used to be a vacant dumping ground, but Make the Road teamed with local volunteers and pressured the New York City Housing Authority into cleaning it up: small but telling evidence of their community action at work. Neighbors hope the group’s action on behalf of lead paint poisoned children too will bear evidence, pressuring landlords to clean up and the city to ensure they’re doing the cleaning.

At the offices of Council members Perkins and Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn)—who said in the recent hearing that "any landlord against Intro 101-A should be arrested"—the staff say they don’t expect a vote on the new bill anytime soon. The tentative voting date of October 2 was scheduled last summer, and sources say that a vote that soon is unlikely. In the ongoing maneuvering within the City Council, most expect the Speaker to announce his own version of the bill before any vote takes place.

"I sense that’s being crafted now," says Washington. "[Intro 101-A] won’t go through without the fiddling of the Speaker. [He] won’t allow something to pass unless he’s had his hand in it."


Marjory Garrison


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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