“Getting lead out of our homes is a racial, economic, and environmental justice issue, and city leadership is obligated to do everything they can to end lead poisoning.”

Michael Appleton/NYC Mayor’s Office

A lead paint testing tool.

Thursday’s passage of lead-related legislation at City Council moves us closer toward ending exposure to lead and lead poisoning in New York City. Despite decades of significant advances, and the fact that childhood lead poisoning is completely preventable, too many children are still exposed to lead, and progress has plateaued. It is well documented that lead can cause long-term irreversible negative health impacts, and can reduce a child’s learning capacity and academic achievement.

In 2021 2,557 New York City children under 6 years of age were identified with dangerous blood lead levels and 81 percent of children under 6 identified with dangerously high blood levels are Asian, Black, or Latino. Of children with blood lead levels above 5.0 mcg/dL, 88 percent reside in moderate to high-poverty neighborhoods, and as of March 2023, 45 percent of all lead-related court cases in New York City were in the Bronx. Getting lead out of our homes is a racial, economic, and environmental justice issue, and city leadership is obligated to do everything they can to end lead poisoning.

In 1960, New York City became one of the first cities to ban lead-based paint in residential buildings, outpacing the federal government’s ban in 1978. Since then, Local Law 1 of 2004, the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, was passed which requires landlords to implement stringent safety protocols to safeguard children tenants from the detrimental effects of lead poisoning. Between 2018 and 2020 City Council passed multiple lead-related laws, and last year, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) implemented a strict lead testing standard for children, decreasing the mandatory reporting threshold for mandated department investigation from 5.0 mcg/dL to 3.5 mcg/dL, enabling New York to be at the forefront of preventing lead exposure and poisoning by promptly intervening to address health effects and exposure sources.

In order to ensure the intent of these laws are achieved, city agencies must meet their enforcement obligations. From January 2018 to March 2023, lead paint violations increased, and 2,838 lead violations were issued in March alone. Without updated standards, rigorous enforcement, and accountability, the city will continue to lead the country in lead exposure risk. The legislation passed today empowers tenants and city government to intervene when lead-based hazards are present or suspected, and makes clear that lead hazards are a very serious issue. 

Introduction 0193-2022, which I have sponsored, creates an immediately hazardous Class C violation for lead in common areas of multiple dwellings where children under six reside. Inspectors will also be expected to survey for peeling paint in common areas when responding to lead complaints in units and require the same safe work practices necessary for remediating lead within dwellings where children reside.

This legislative change is important because children walk through the hallways of their buildings daily, and this source of exposure should not be minimized. Peeling paint from walls and high friction surfaces like door frames and stairwells can be sources of lead dust, which can travel throughout the floors of a building. Building common spaces, a shared place between families and their neighbors, allow neighbors to gather and interact amongst themselves, promoting community, support systems, and a sense of belonging.

Common spaces are spaces of cultural exchange, where people from different backgrounds share their traditions and perspectives, where people sit in front of during a warm summer day,  and where children run around the hallway as an extension to the playground during family reunions. These spaces foster social connectedness, which have various positive effects such as helping cope with stress, anxiety and depression, and help contribute to an overall well-being, and higher quality of life. By addressing peeling paint in dust in common dwellings, we not only protect children from the detrimental effects of lead poisoning, but we also recognize the significance that common areas hold as community spaces. New York City cannot eliminate lead poisoning completely if we don’t address contamination from common areas in buildings.

Even after the passage of this  bill, there is more work to do. A way to strengthen lead safety policy would be to amend city law to use 1978 as the benchmark for a presumption of lead when an inspector observes peeling paint, as opposed to 1960, the year New York City banned the sale of lead-based paint. The law did not remove this paint from circulation and because the federal government did not implement a ban until 1978, to best protect New York City households, 1978 should be used as the indicator. We must also allocate more resources where possible to expand lead-related inspections and enforcement power beyond dwelling units and into common areas and other parts of a building that could be a source of lead risk.

Local Law 1 set a goal of ending childhood lead poisoning by 2010, but it was never effectively enforced. That’s why, 13 years later, thousands of children in New York are still subjected to avoidable and permanent neurological impacts due to exposure to lead in old paint, dust, and drinking water in their homes. Even low levels of lead exposure can have severe consequences for children under six.

We must do everything we can to protect New York’s children from the harmful impacts of lead exposure and strive for nothing less than a lead free NYC.

Carlina Rivera represents parts of Manhattan in New York City Council. Sonal Jessel is the director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.