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Buffalo should do more to stop poisoning its children

Get the lead out

Young children in Erie County, mostly from Buffalo’s inner city, are testing positive for lead poisoning at more than triple the state average.

As a result, hundreds of children enter Buffalo schools every year dealing with the impacts of lead poisoning, which can include lowered IQ and behavioral problems. The chief source of the problem is lead-based paint chips and dust in Buffalo’s old housing stock.

“Buffalo is ground zero in the entire country for lead poisoning,” said David Hahn-Baker, a local environmental activist who has studied the lead problem for three decades.

Yet City Hall treats lead poisoning as someone else’s problem to resolve.


• The City Charter doesn’t grant inspectors the power to regularly inspect the interiors of one- and two-family rentals for lead hazards or other code violations. Interior inspections have proved essential in addressing lead problems in other cities.

• None of the city’s 39 building inspectors is certified to conduct tests to detect lead hazards. The city, after a short-lived, unsuccessful program in the 1990s, struck a deal with Erie County to have its Health Department assume the responsibility for lead inspections.

• The county has far fewer inspectors at its disposal than the city. The county employs a dozen sanitarians whose duties are not limited to testing for lead hazards. Based on the current pace of inspections, it will take the county more than 30 years to inspect the city’s 85,500 housing units considered most at risk for lead paint hazards.

• The Common Council, citing complaints from property owners and Realtors, asked the Health Department in February to suspend its lead testing program. The county rejected the request.

City officials dispute that they’re ignoring the problem. They maintain that the city and county agreed long ago that the county Health Department would take primary responsibility for tackling lead hazards.

“The county government has a health department, the health department is in charge of doing lead inspections. It is not a city function,” said Common Council Majority Leader Demone Smith.

Officials also note that the number of lead poisoning cases in Buffalo is dropping thanks to programs such as the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative in which the city is participating.

But the fact remains that the present effort falls short of the need.

Children in Buffalo are testing positive for lead poisoning at more than triple the state average, the City Charter doesn’t allow for an effective enforcement program, and it will take decades for inspectors to canvass all of the city’s potentially contaminated properties.

That’s left many advocates saying that City Hall needs to be more involved and proactive.

The key is leadership, said Hahn-Baker.

“We really need the leadership to look at everybody and say, ‘You all need to do your part,’ ” he said.

Buffalo’s shortcomings

Much of Buffalo’s housing stock is suspected of containing lead because most of it was built before lead paint was banned in 1978. In fact, Census data shows Buffalo has the highest percentage of homes built before World War II than any large city in the country.

“We’ve known about the toxicity of lead for a millennium, and here we are still wondering, ‘Gee, what are we going to do about it?’” said Matthew Chachere, a staff attorney for the nonprofit advocacy group Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., at a conference in Buffalo this spring.

Other cities, including Rochester, have determined that their inspectors need to periodically get inside rental units to test for lead hazards and passed a law to mandate access. Similar to Buffalo, about 60 percent of Rochester’s housing is renter occupied and research shows these residences have the most lead hazards.

Buffalo has no such provision for one- and two-family rentals: for inspectors to gain entrance, the owner or occupant would have to grant them permission to enter. County health sanitarians conducting door-to-door inspections gain entry only a quarter of the time.

“If we had a complaint that was specifically about lead we refer it over to the county,” said Lou Petrucci, assistant director of the city’s Department of Permit and Inspections Services.

The city does mandate interior inspections every three years for dwellings with three or more units.

A cycle of reinspections for at-risk homes is important, experts said. The federal government recommends that property owners have their homes re-evaluated every two years if they use temporary measures, such as painting over the lead-based coating, to control lead hazards.

Doing this in Buffalo would require legislative action.

“We don’t make policy,” Petrucci said. “Policy would have to be made by the Common Council or the mayor.”

County overwhelmed

The county Health Department’s 12 sanitarians spend about two-thirds of their time conducting door-to-door inspections in the city’s most at-risk neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are chosen for a number of factors, including age and condition of housing and prevalence of lead poisoning cases.

But three-quarters of the time, their efforts are limited to testing for lead on house exteriors, as owners and occupants deny them access to test inside.

“Some people do slam the doors in our face and some people welcome us in and they are really interested in finding out if they have a problem with lead,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, the county’s health commissioner.

The Health Department has five additional staff members who work with families who have a child poisoned by lead. In some cases, they conduct a complete environmental investigation in homes to determine all potential health hazards.

In all, Health Department sanitarians inspect about 2,000 homes a year. That’s less than 3 percent of the total number of Buffalo’s at-risk homes.

“We could always use more help, but we are trying the best we can,” Burstein said. “We just have a limited number of resources, we have a limited number of staff, but with what we are doing we are seeing an effect.”

Health sanitarians have yet to inspect Tamara Riphahn’s turn-of-the-century home on the West Side.

A doctor informed Riphahn a year ago that her son, then six months old, had elevated blood lead levels. Although she’s not certain, she suspects the cause is lead paint dust from her home or migrating from neighbors renovating their houses.

The amount it takes to poison a child is less than what would fit in a sugar packet.

“You have to be so diligent about constantly washing hands and cleaning all the time otherwise it just happens,” she said.

“Basically, your home becomes your enemy.”

Despite the city’s hands-off approach, the Health Department can report progress.

State health data for 2006 through 2011 shows almost a 40 percent drop in the number of children testing positive for lead poisoning in Erie County.

The rate is still the worst among the 11 counties in the state that test 10,000 or more children a year, according to the most-recent state health data. An average of 350 children a year - more than three-quarters of whom live in Buffalo - continue to test positive with blood lead levels that are at least double the minimum that the Center for Disease Control says require medical intervention.

No champion

Many experts interviewed by Investigative Post believe the city needs a champion to galvanize the community around policy change.

“It’s not that leadership has done bad things at the local level, they haven’t done enough,” Hahn-Baker said.

The Common Council took steps in February that surprised advocates and sparked a discussion about the lack of leadership for the city’s lead problem.

At the behest of Smith, whose Masten Council district is a lead hotspot, the Council passed a resolution asking the Health Department to halt exterior home inspections. Smith said he had fielded complaints from elderly residents and Realtors that the inspections program would gentrify neighborhoods and lower property values.

Smith said there was no reason to cite property owners for lead hazards at homes where children don’t live and that the program created a hardship for property owners who had to remedy the problems. He also claimed most lead poisoning comes from hazards inside homes.

A month later, the county health commissioner rebuked Smith and refused to stop the program.

“While lead poisoning is caused by the ingestion of dust most often contacted inside of homes, the dust most often originates outside the home,” Burstein wrote in a letter to Smith.

“Regardless of whether the home is occupied by a child, the deteriorating paint will affect all children in the neighborhood.”

In April, more than 50 experts gathered in Buffalo for a conference on lead laws and policy. One of the chief conclusions among the attendees was that the cities like Buffalo that have lead problems need strong advocates who can effect change.

“To me, it’s a lack of political will and that’s what we have to get around. We have this don’t ask, don’t tell, cover your eyes and hope the problem goes away, and we have to stop that,” said Chachere, the staff attorney for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, said at the April conference.

Without local leadership pushing for policy change, the preventable lead poisoning problem will continue, Hahn-Baker said.

“And it’s very sad because it’s not rocket science,” he said.

“It’s a problem for housing inspectors, for law enforcement, for educators, for all parts of our society, so we need leadership from our public officials to really make a difference.”

Dan Telvock is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

• • •


> by Dan Telvock

Rochester used to have a lead problem at least as bad as Buffalo’s.

But officials there got serious a decade ago and developed a program that’s considered a national model that some think Buffalo should emulate.

Ralph Spezio, principal of an inner-city elementary school, was Rochester’s catalyst for change.

Fifteen years ago he overheard two nurses talking about a pupil’s high blood lead level.

“Then the other one said, ‘They are all lead poisoned,’” Spezio said.

He was alarmed and wanted to know more. He signed a confidentiality agreement with the Monroe County Health Department and obtained lead test results for his youngest pupils. What Spezio discovered was shocking: Four in 10 of his pupils - hundreds of youngsters - had lead poisoning.

“I called a press conference, and I called childhood lead poisoning the silent and invisible monster that’s devouring our children right before our eyes,” he said.

“If you steal someone’s IQ, you have stolen their future.”

Spezio co-founded the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning and spurred a movement that led the city to pass landmark legislation in 2005.

The law provides a mechanism for city code enforcers to inspect all rental units for lead. Similar to Buffalo, 60 percent of Rochester’s housing is renter occupied and research shows these residences have the most lead hazards. Rentals in high-risk neighborhoods are subject to more stringent testing even if they passed an initial visual inspection. Owner-occupied singles and doubles are exempt from regular interior lead inspections unless the owner or renter complains to the city. The city can still use building code regulations to cite these homes for exterior peeling paint, like in Buffalo.

“Lead poisoning is a health problem with a housing solution,” said Katrina Korfmacher, associate professor for the Department of Environmental Medicine at University of Rochester Medical Center.

Code enforcers in both Buffalo and Rochester inspect mixed-use and multi-unit buildings every three years. But Buffalo does not have provisions to inspect the interiors of one- and two-family rental units unless there is a complaint and the owner or occupant permits access.

However, in Rochester, one- and two-family rentals are inspected every six years. When inspectors find an interior lead hazard in a property located in the designated high risk zones, and the property owner uses a temporary measure to control it, they return every three years.

Rochester officials also built a public database of lead-safe properties to let renters and homebuyers know where it is safe to live.

“The lead poisoning monster is able to really hide, so we have to be constantly working toward eliminating that monster,” Spezio said.

Buffalo lacks similar policies. And not one of the city’s 39 inspectors is certified to detect lead hazards. Instead, the Erie County Health Department conducts inspections for lead hazards.

That effort results in about 2,000 inspections a year versus more than 14,000 in Rochester.

The number of children testing positive for elevated blood lead levels in Monroe County, including Rochester, has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2005.

“I attribute this to an approach here in Rochester and Monroe County that includes all the players at the table to help deal with the problem,” said Dr. Stanley Schaffer, director of the Western New York Lead Poisoning Resource Center in Rochester.

“It’s a public health problem for everybody.”

While rates have also dropped in Buffalo and Erie County, children here tested positive at nearly double the rate of Rochester and Monroe County, according to the state’s most-recent health data. That’s 1.86 percent of the children tested in Erie County compared to 1.03 percent in Monroe County.

David Hahn-Baker, a Buffalo environmental activist who has studied the lead problem for 30 years, said Rochester’s efforts prove that proactive policies make a difference.

“We actually looked at Rochester as a model to build around and it’s led to some of the good things we’ve done, but it’s not been enough because we haven’t had the leadership from our public officials,” he said.

“If they can do it in Rochester, why can’t we do it here in Buffalo?”

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