Rochester leads on lead while Buffalo dallies

Rochester used to have a lead problem at least as bad as Buffalo’s.

But officials there got serious a decade ago and developed a program that’s considered a national model that some think Buffalo should emulate.

Ralph Spezio, principal of an inner-city elementary school, was Rochester’s catalyst for change.

Fifteen years ago he overheard two nurses talking about a pupil’s high blood lead level.

“Then the other one said, ‘They are all lead poisoned,’” Spezio said.

He was alarmed and wanted to know more. He signed a confidentiality agreement with the Monroe County Health Department and obtained lead test results for his youngest pupils.

What Spezio discovered was shocking: Four in 10 of his pupils – hundreds of youngsters – had lead poisoning.

“I called a press conference, and I called childhood lead poisoning the silent and invisible monster that’s devouring our children right before our eyes,” he said.

“If you steal someone’s IQ, you have stolen their future.”

Spezio co-founded the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning and spurred a movement that led the city to pass landmark legislation in 2005.

The law provides a mechanism for city code enforcers to inspect all rental units for lead. Similar to Buffalo, 60 percent of Rochester’s housing is renter occupied and research shows these residences have the most lead hazards.

Rentals in high-risk neighborhoods are subject to more stringent testing even if they passed an initial visual inspection. Owner-occupied singles and doubles are exempt from regular interior lead inspections unless the owner or renter complains to the city. The city can still use building code regulations to cite these homes for exterior peeling paint, like in Buffalo.

“Lead poisoning is a health problem with a housing solution,” said Katrina Korfmacher, associate professor for the Department of Environmental Medicine at University of Rochester Medical Center.

Code enforcers in both Buffalo and Rochester inspect mixed-use and multi-unit buildings every three years.

Buffalo, however, does not have provisions to inspect the interiors of one- and two-family rental units unless there is a complaint and the owner or occupant grants access.

In Rochester, one- and two-family rentals are inspected every six years. When inspectors find an interior lead hazard in a property located in the designated high risk zones, and the property owner uses a temporary measure to control it, they return every three years

Rochester officials also built a public database of lead-safe properties to let renters and homebuyers know where it is safe to live.

“The lead poisoning monster is able to really hide, so we have to be constantly working toward eliminating that monster,” Spezio said.

Buffalo lacks similar policies. And not one of the city’s 39 inspectors is certified to detect lead hazards. Instead, the Erie County Health Department conducts inspections for lead hazards.

That effort results in about 2,000 inspections a year versus more than 14,000 in Rochester. And inspectors here gain entry inside houses less than half the time.

The number of children testing positive for elevated blood lead levels in Monroe County, including Rochester, has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2005.

“I attribute this to an approach here in Rochester and Monroe County that includes all the players at the table to help deal with the problem,” said Dr. Stanley Schaffer, director of the Western New York Lead Poisoning Resource Center in Rochester.

“It’s a public health problem for everybody.”

While rates have also dropped in Buffalo and Erie County, children here tested positive at nearly double the rate of Rochester and Monroe County, according to the state’s most-recent health data. That’s 1.86 percent of the children tested in Erie County compared to 1.03 percent in Monroe County.

David Hahn-Baker, a Buffalo environmental activist who has studied the lead problem for 30 years, said Rochester’s efforts prove that proactive policies make a difference.

“We actually looked at Rochester as a model to build around and it’s led to some of the good things we’ve done, but it’s not been enough because we haven’t had the leadership from our public officials,” he said.

“If they can do it in Rochester, why can’t we do it here in Buffalo?”