Mayor backtracks on lead pledge

You don’t have to go as far as Flint, Michigan, to find a serious lead poisoning problem. There’s one right here in Buffalo, one that City Hall continues to downplay.

New data obtained by Investigative Post shows there’s an increase, for the first time in four years, in the number of children in Erie County who tested positive for lead in their blood.

In 2015, Erie County reported 295 children who tested positive for lead in their blood. That’s a 14 percent increase from the prior year.

The real problem is in Buffalo, however, where 273 children – 93 percent of the county total – tested positive for lead last year. That’s a 13 percent increase from the prior year.

Even more troubling is the increase in the number of Buffalo children who tested positive for higher amounts of lead that require some form of intervention by health officials. Their numbers totaled 123, or one-third more in 2015 than the year before.

That’s almost as many children who tested positive for lead in the entire city of Baltimore last year (129), which is more than double the size of Buffalo.

The chief culprit, said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein, is chipping paint inside and outside of Buffalo’s old housing stock.

“It’s a big problem,” she said.

It’s a problem, however, that city leaders have yet to fully grasp. In fact, Mayor Byron Brown told Investigative Post last summer that he was unaware that the county was having difficulties inspecting houses for lead because health officials never reached out for help. The mayor expressed a willingness to talk to the county about working together to address the problem. But he has failed to act in the past seven months.

Asked to explain the inaction, the mayor on Monday said the city’s response to the lead problem is demolishing old, uninhabitable homes and partnering in the Green and Healthy Homes initiative. That grant program has addressed lead hazards in just 1 percent of the city’s total at-risk housing units since its inception in 2009.

In short, the mayor on Monday expressed no interest in City Hall working with the county to expand the effort to identify homes with lead paint contamination.

Local activist David Hahn Baker, who has more than three decades of experience working on lead prevention programs, said the mayor is not showing leadership on this issue.

“It’s Byron’s job to be aware of problems that affect his constituents and it’s really his job to deal with the children, in particular children in the area,” he said.

The inaction on the part of the city has serious consequences.

Lead in a child’s blood can stunt brain development. Exposure can result in lower reading scores and cause behavioral problems. At higher levels, it can damage internal organs.

The fact that Monroe County has seen an 85 percent decrease in the number of children testing positive for lead poisoning over the past decade due to a series of initiatives launched in 2005 seems to have little persuasion on what Buffalo does.

Rochester, the largest city in Monroe County, where most of the lead hazards exist, inspects one- and two-family rental homes on a regular cycle. Buffalo does not. Experts said this difference plays a large role in why Buffalo falls behind.

Nonetheless, the mayor said programs in Rochester and Buffalo should not be compared.

“It’s apples and oranges, it’s not a direct comparison in any way,” Brown said.

Hahn Baker said city leaders can mirror – even improving upon – Rochester’s lead prevention program. Only a lack of political will is preventing city leaders from acting, he said.

“The only answer for sure is that these kids and their families both lose,” he said.