Getting The Lead Out: Paint Still A Concern

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Over the past 15 years, New York City has made extraordinary progress in reducing lead poisoning among children. According to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), the number of new cases of children with elevated lead levels in their blood fell from 19,000 in 1995 to 1,900 in 2007 – a 90 percent decrease. Over the same period, the incidence of cases where lead poisoning was serious enough for the health department to intervene fell by almost two-thirds, to 538 cases in 2007.

But some public health advocates say it’s high time to finish the job of ridding all housing of lead paint through safe remediation, because lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and behavior problems in youngsters. So advocates are calling for stronger enforcement of Local Law 1, the 2004 city ordinance that toughened existing lead regulations and imposed on landlords of older buildings duties such as informing tenants about lead hazards, inspecting apartments where children under age 6 live, and correcting any identified lead problems using safe remediation practices.

Five years after the law’s passage, a report released at July’s end contends that landlords are not adhering to those requirements. A two-year survey of 120 tenants in Bushwick, Brooklyn by Make the Road New York and the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning (NYCCELP) found that 92 percent of tenants say their landlords failed to meet all their Local Law 1 obligations. Fifty-nine percent of tenants said their landlords didn’t comply with the law at all. And of the 23 respondents whose landlords removed lead hazards, eight said their landlord didn’t use safe work practices to make sure the remediation work didn’t spread potentially harmful lead dust through the apartment.

At a press conference on July 28 in front of a six-unit, three-story building at 260 Jefferson Street, tenant Agustina Crisantos said she had lived at the site for 26 years but only recently found out about lead paint violations. “I am worried that my daughter Michelle, who is six years old, has lead in her blood. She is very hyperactive. They say that this could be because of lead poisoning,” read a translation of Crisantos’ remarks. “This landlord never checked for lead in our apartment. He never gave us educational pamphlets about lead. He only came to fix the violations this past Friday because he knows that we’re taking him to court this week.”

Indeed, as Crisantos spoke, a workman carrying a can of paint squeezed by her into the building.

“The city ought to be fining landlords for this and publicizing it,” said attorney Matthew Chachere, who is working for the NYCCELP. “They’re not doing that. The vast majority of landlords, in this area at least, pay no attention to [the law] because they think there aren’t any consequences, and apparently that’s true.” Chachere says a lack of enforcement could prevent the city from meeting the U.S. Department of Health and Services’ national goal of eliminating new cases of lead poisoning by 2010.

The current owner of 260 Jefferson is Leo Gluck, whose family purchased the building in September 2006 in a sheriff’s sale. According to city records, in the past two years, the owner has been ordered on five occasions to do lead analysis or lead abatement. City records indicate those tasks were completed. Gluck referred questions about Cristanos’ apartment to his management agent, Mike Zimmerman. “Well, it’s been addressed,” Zimmerman said, referring to the work begun last week. When Gluck bought the building, Zimmerman added, “We checked it. [The paint] was not peeling at that time. And now they have children and the paint is peeling so we addressed it.”

The report released last week calls on the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to step up its enforcement of Local Law 1 by spot-checking to see if landlords are complying with the rules, and fining those who are not. The authors also call on DOHMH and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to perform random spot checks of apartments.

Dave Powell, director of organizing and advocacy at the statewide group Tenants and Neighbors, which was not involved in drafting the report, says the problem is bigger than one neighborhood. “We believe the experiences of Bushwick tenants which are documented in the report—lack of notification, inspection and proper abatement by landlords as well as under-enforcement by the city—are occurring citywide to tenants dealing with lead paint conditions,” Powell said. “We agree that without proper – and properly funded – code enforcement, the city’s very much achievable goal of eradicating childhood lead poisoning by 2010 will remain an unfulfilled promise.” HPD’s budget for lead abatement is $20.6 million this year, down from $25.8 million last year.

The overall reduction in lead exposure achieved so far is attributed to increased awareness on the part of parents on the dangers of lead, and to the removal of lead hazards through the removal of lead paint by scraping it away and repainting, or replacing the sheetrock on which the paint is found.

New York was the first city to ban lead paint in 1960 and has tightened its lead laws twice since then. Local Law 1 became law over Mayor Bloomberg’s veto. City Hall argued that the measure would impose onerous costs on landlords and reduce the stock of affordable housing—a critique echoed by the Rent Stabilization Association, an advocacy group for property owners. Mitchell Posilkin, RSA’s general counsel, did not dispute the report’s findings that landlords in Bushwick are not following the law. But he says the reduction in lead poisoning cases undercuts the advocates’ argument for tougher enforcement. “The dramatic decline in the incidence of elevated blood lead levels is proof positive that we don’t need any more laws, we don’t need any more audits, we don’t need any further sticks to punish owners,” said Posilkin.

Responding to the report, HPD says that in the 2009 fiscal year, it received nearly 17,000 complaints about peeling paint in apartments where kids under the age of six live, attempted more than 31,600 inspections and issued 31,115 violations. Some 2,400 repairs were completed and 654 Housing Court cases were launched.

“The Department of Housing Preservation and Development works to prevent lead poisoning through a robust inspection and repair process, which involves a significant amount of both personnel and emergency repair resources,” said department spokeswoman Catie Marshall in a statement. “Currently we offer an online lead paint education course that we encourage landlords, managing agents and tenants to take. Finally, we encourage anyone who thinks they might have an issue with lead paint where they live to call 311 and let us know.”

DOHMH said in a statement that it “responds to all complaints about unsafe work that disturbs lead paint (or paint of unknown lead content) in homes with children less than 18 years of age.” Last year, the department responded to 214 complaints of unsafe work and issued 375 unsafe work violations, the statement said.

EPA’s New York region spokesman Elias Rodriguez says his agency “is serious about making sure renters and buyers get the information they need to protect their families from lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards” and adds that “EPA remains actively committed to this issue.”

– Jarrett Murphy