CLEAN-UP CRISIS: DAY CARE CENTERS STRUGGLE TO REMOVE LEAD

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In March, the city’s health department made a shocking discovery: Roughly half of city day care centers were contaminated with lead. Providers panicked. Not only were their children at risk, but the centers themselves could be shut down if the lead wasn’t quickly abated. Now the City Council and nonprofits are looking for ways to help.

Under Local Law 1, day care centers with lead violations have 30 days to correct problems, though centers can file for extensions to find funding and dispute the violations. A day care operator may spend anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the severity of the problem.

The Montessori Day School in Brooklyn was inspected in November 2004 and is facing lead abatement costs of over $100,000 to remedy its violations. The school cares for 111 preschool-age children inside the downtown Brooklyn YWCA building, and has received extensions in order to find funding to clean up the lead. “There is no attention to how [this law] is implemented,” said Fatemeh Modarres, head of Montessori Day School. “In 30 days you can’t even get the bids.”

Dan Porter, president of the school’s board of directors, said the Department of Health has been hostile with the school. The lead is “under five layers of paint,” he said, and lead poisoning usually occurs in the home, not at day care facilities. Day care facilities may be required to drywall over walls found to have lead.

Dan Chachter, whose child attends Montessori, said the inspection report didn’t provide parents a full picture of the lead problem. “What I would like to know is the risk.” Chachter said the inspection found lead in the walls, which is common for old buildings, but he had heard that the real danger is in paint dust and chips. He said the inspectors did not do a dust-wipe test. The Department of Health did not return calls for comment.

The department has had strong lead abatement codes since the late 1990s, though enforcement was relatively lax, according to Matthew Chachère, a staff attorney with the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, which pushed for Local Law 1. Once it passed, he said, “All the sudden the health department got off its derriere and started inspecting day care centers.”

The Children’s All Day School on the Upper East Side was inspected in December of last year and received multiple violations. Roni Hewitt, administrative director at the school, filed for an extension to get a second opinion on the violations. After months of back and forth with the health department, the center dipped into its own pockets for $20,000 worth of work, but will seek a loan to pay for other requirements.

In response to stories like these, the City Council is now mulling financial assistance for day care centers looking to remediate. Currently there are loans available from state, but only for residential removal. “There’s a wide range of possibilities being discussed,” said Councilmember Letitia James, noting that many of her constituents have called her about the problem.

The Low Income Investment Fund is prepared to offer loans of up to $70,000 to day care centers capable of paying it back. It is also looking to partner with other community based financial groups to expand its reach. “We seem to be the only organization working on this,” said program coordinator Suzanne Reisman.

“Everyone agrees that having lead in day care centers is a bad idea,” said Chachère. “We need a funding solution.”’