Public Health: Paint by Numbers

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Back in June 2003, the city’s health commissioner stood before the City Council and blasted a bill designed to reduce children’s exposure to lead paint. Intro 101A, as it was then known, “is not consistent with federal guidelines,” said Commissioner Thomas L. Frieden, and “not targeted to those at greatest need.”

Now, just months after Local Law 1 was enacted over these concerns and despite the Mayor’s veto, advocates say the Department of Health (DOH) has dramatically changed course and is working hard to implement the stringent new rules.

In one example of the shift, DOH has started a widespread public awareness campaign, reaching out to both parents and physicians with flyers and subway ads to better educate them about the threat of lead. Whenever a child tests positive for lead exposure, a landlord has 21 days to correct hazardous conditions in the home. The DOH is also working closely with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to ensure that landlords routinely inspect and fix peeling paint and other violations.

“The city is making much better use of its resources,” says Matthew Chachère, an attorney with the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, who helped draft the legislation. “We won’t have data for some time to know if our lead poisoning rates go down. But if the bill is properly implemented, it could have a great effect.”

Not great enough, say some local parents. In October, roughly a dozen clustered outside the Department of Health offices, asking Commissioner Thomas Frieden to go beyond the law and lower the threshold at which it considers a child poisoned.

Under the current law, DOH regularly tests all children under the age of 6 and notifies the family when a child is found with a blood lead level of 10 micrograms or more in his or her body. If their levels reach 15 micrograms, the agency can order the landlord to remediate.

“We don’t want to wait until a child’s level becomes elevated,” says Deborah Nagil, director of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program for DOH. “HPD is there to prevent poisonings and make landlords live up to the law. We kick in when levels reach 10 and above.”

While acknowledging this as a step in the right direction, the parents, organized by the nonprofit Pratt Area Community Council, aren’t satisfied. They cite a 2003 study released in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that children with lead levels as low as five micrograms can still suffer neurological damage and a drop in IQ. They’re hoping to persuade the Board of Health to lower the acceptable lead level to five.

“Lead is not known to be safe in any quantity,” says Dr. John Rosen, director of Pediatrics at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Yet since the federal standard has been stuck at 10 for over a decade, he adds, the likelihood of a state or local level office intervening at a lower level is a long shot at best.

The parents are still hopeful. “One in two children in these neighborhoods is affected by lead poisoning,” says Shannon Casey, a Park Slope resident whose 11-month-old son has a lead level of nine. “We need to take this out of the hands of the landlords…. Currently the city is saying his level is not a problem, and they’re offering no treatment for him and so many others.”