Update: Buffalo’s lead poisoning problem

March Moon fled Burma for a better quality of life in Buffalo. Instead, she’s got a sick kid suffering from lead poisoning.

Her five-year-old son has kidney problems. He struggles to eat and sleep. His stunted growth makes him the smallest pupil in preschool. He’s been hospitalized numerous times with stays of up to eight days.

“The Erie County Department of Health came to my house and they said that my son has lead poisoning,” Moon said. “I had never heard of that before. What is that?”

Moon and her ailing son are not alone.

Thirty-seven years after lead was banned in paint, several hundred children a year in Buffalo continue to be diagnosed with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

An Investigative Post analysis of the most recent ZIP code-level state health data for a three-year period ending in 2012 presents a sobering picture of Buffalo’s lead problem.

Consider:

  • No ZIP code in upstate New York had more children testing positive for lead than 14213, which comprises Buffalo’s West Side.
  • That ZIP code, plus two others on the city’s East Side, accounted for three of the four ZIP codes reporting the most new cases in all of Upstate New York.
  • Buffalo reported a total of 884 new cases. That’s more than 2 1⁄2 times as many as each of the entire counties of Oneida (Utica), Monroe (Rochester) or Onondaga (Syracuse) counties, who rank next highest upstate.

In November, Investigative Post reported that children in Erie County, mostly from Buffalo, are testing positive for lead at more than triple the state average.

In response, the Erie County Health Department has narrowed its inspections program to focus on residences that are home to young children in neighborhoods where lead poisoning is most prevalent.

“It’s still a serious problem, but we have made some headway,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, the county’s health commissioner.

We use our kids as poison detectors.

— David Hahn Baker, Buffalo activist

The city has not taken any steps to get involved, but Mayor Byron Brown has said he’s willing to consider teaming with the county.

“We certainly would be responsive to working with the county if they reached out to us,” Brown said.

That could set the stage for a more concerted effort to tackle the stubborn problem of lead poisoning. Advocates maintain that a more coordinated, aggressive approach is necessary.

“If you care about children then you have to care about lead issues,” said David Hahn Baker, a Buffalo activist with three decades of experience tackling lead problems.

New findings

The state Department of Health has for the first time publicly released a decade’s worth of lead testing data organized by ZIP codes that shows Buffalo has the biggest problem—by a wide margin.

The state data only shows ZIP codes that reported at least six new childhood cases.

Investigative Post’s analysis found that the poorest neighborhoods are hit the hardest.

Consider that in a three-year period ending in 2012:

  • 238 children tested positive for lead in ZIP code 14213, which comprises the West Side. One-third of these children had blood-lead levels high enough to require full lead-safe home assessments by county health officials that includes medical home visits from a registered nurse.
  • 138 children tested positive for lead in ZIP code 14211, which includes neighborhoods around Martin Luther King and Schiller parks. Similarly, one-third of these children had blood-lead levels high enough to require the more in-depth reviews.
  • 115 kids tested positive for lead in ZIP code 14215, which includes the University Heights, Kensington-Bailey and East Delavan neighborhoods. Almost half of these children had blood-lead levels high enough to require the more in-depth reviews.

Together, that’s 491 new cases in just three ZIP codes.

lead_for_dan_2

In a three-year period, nearly 500 kids in just these city ZIP codes had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

If the elevated levels persist, many of these children likely will develop long-term problems, such as aggressive behavior, learning disabilities and attention problems, doctors said.

The state data does not distinguish which levels were extreme enough to require immediate medical intervention, but local health officials said it does happen on occasion. Moon’s son is just one example.

“We use our kids as poison detectors,” Hahn Baker said.

County has made changes

In November, Investigative Post reported on the success Rochester and Monroe County have achieved, due in large part to proactive measures leaders took a decade ago.

For example, Rochester launched an inspection program for one- and two-family rentals, where most lead hazards exist. The city also has a public database of lead-safe properties to let renters and homebuyers know where it is safe to live.

No similar program exists in Buffalo. In fact, Investigative Post reported last fall that none of Buffalo’s 39 building inspectors is certified to conduct tests to find lead hazards in homes.

Instead, the inspections are left to 12 county health sanitarians. But at the pace the county was going, it would have taken more than three decades to inspect the 85,000 housing units in the city that are at risk for lead hazards. And three-quarters of the inspections only examined the exteriors of homes.

The county most of the time does not get access to inspect inside homes for lead hazards.

The county most of the time does not get access to inside homes to inspect for lead hazards.

In a change instituted in the wake of Investigative Post’s report last fall, the health department will focus on the three most at-risk ZIP codes: 14213, 14211 and 14215.

The inspections program now targets the most at-risk homes where children under the age of six live and there are documented cases of lead problems. This reduces the number of housing units that need inspection from 85,000 to 12,000.

“We know that there is a problem in those homes and we know that we can intervene,” Burstein said.

Mayor open to discussion

Brown said he is familiar with Rochester’s more-comprehensive inspections program, but he hasn’t seen the need to duplicate it in Buffalo.

“The county has not indicated to the city that it has a problem, that it’s having difficulty in being able to conduct inspections and do the work that needs to be done,” Brown said.

But the mayor is willing to consider working with the county.

My son already has lead poisoning. I don’t want other mothers to go through this.

— March Moon

“Monroe County contracts with the city of Rochester to do lead inspections, so we would be open to a very similar approach in the city of Buffalo,” he said.

Burstein, a pediatrician, acknowledged in an interview that neither she nor anyone on her lead prevention team has asked the city to consider similar measures enacted in Rochester.

“We were not aware that the mayor’s office was open to collaborating with us,” she said.

“With this new information, I think we need to meet with the lead control team and make a plan and decide what our ask will be.”

‘Clear and present danger’

The disconnect between city and county officials doesn’t sit well with some in the community.

“I feel like the city of Buffalo needs to take lead poisoning more seriously and take more responsibility,” Moon said.

“My son already has lead poisoning. I don’t want other mothers to go through this.”

Hahn Baker said the city may never duplicate Rochester’s program without public pressure.

“Lead is a clear and present danger for a child here in Buffalo,” he said.

“If you’re interested in attracting workers to Buffalo, if you’re interested in attracting parents to Buffalo, then you’ve got to get a handle on this lead issue.”