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Opening up a new front in the lead paint wars, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) filed suit last week against the state Department of Health, charging the agency with violating freedom of information and public health laws by withholding medical records on lead poisoning.

Lead paint is common in older apartments, and a child who eats or inhales it can suffer learning disabilities, comas, convulsions or even death. “New York has the legal infrastructure to be a model in lead-poisoning reduction,” said Andrew Goldberg, a NYPIRG attorney. “It is frustrating that it is taking them years to report medical data so we can’t use the information that is supposed to be available to improve our programs.”

New York’s Public Health Law, passed in 1992, requires that the state Department of Health screen every child under the age of 2 for lead poisoning, as well as every child under 6 whom the department considers “at risk” for the condition. The agency is also supposed to make those results public. Following a request NYPIRG filed last March, the health department provided the advocacy group with paper records on lead poisoning through 1997.

NYPIRG intends to use the data to push the state to improve its lead-testing efforts. A study of where the agency is testing, and how children are faring, could show where existing screening programs have been effective and where they haven’t. If the data shows problems, said Goldberg, “That would generate public support for more aggressive programs at the public health departments.”

But to efficiently map out the state’s lead-poisoning trends, the research group says it needs more up-to-date and detailed data–including children’s gender, ethnicity and home addresses. NYPIRG is particularly interested in gauging the need for expanding testing to more children between the ages of 2 and 6. The state tested 72 percent of New York City children younger than 2 in 1997, compared with 42 percent of kids under 6. “They have failed to demonstrate that the untested are not at risk,” said Goldberg.

Department of Health representative John Signor denies that DOH is deliberately withholding public information, and claims that the data requested by NYPIRG is either confidential or incomplete. He added that in two weeks, the health department will release a report of lead poisoning incidents–a development for which Goldberg takes credit.

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