Schumer: State needs stricter lead standards

Sen. Chuck Schumer has told Investigative Post that the state should bring its standards for lead poisoning in line with stricter federal thresholds, which would almost certainly show the problem is worse than currently reported.

Schumer’s comments add to the growing call for action in Buffalo, where elevated lead levels have been a problem for years because of the presence of lead paint in its old housing stock.

Four years ago, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention lowered the threshold that requires medical care for children testing positive for lead in their blood from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The New York State Department of Health continues to use the higher threshold. As a result, Schumer said Thursday, the state is under-reporting the seriousness of the lead poisoning problem.

Those figures show that while the cases of elevated blood readings in young children continue to decline, they remain significant. For example, Buffalo is home to three of the four zip codes in upstate with the most children testing with elevated levels, according to the most recent comparable data available.

Even more troubling is the increase in the number of city children who recently 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. These children are testing at levels at least triple the threshold used by the CDC.

The Erie County Health Department data shows 273 children in Buffalo tested positive for lead last year at levels of 10 micrograms or higher. That’s a 13 percent increase from the prior year.

High levels, if not addressed, can cause learning, behavioral and health problems disorders in children.

Schumer is talking about lead poisoning because he is co-sponsoring legislation that would allow property owners who make $110,000 a year or less to get a tax credit of up to $3,000 to help remediate lead hazards. How this legislation would impact Buffalo is uncertain, but Schumer is also asking Congress to appropriate up to $230 million for federal programs aimed at controlling lead hazards. That’s more than double the amount appropriated now.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo told Investigative Post on Feb. 17 that the state is prepared to get involved “right away,” if necessary.

The task of inspecting homes for lead paint hazards falls primarily to the Erie County Health Department, which has said it could use help. Mayor Byron Brown said last summer he was willing to talk with the county about the city getting more involved, but has not met with the county and recently backtracked by indicating he is satisfied with the city’s current level of involvement.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told WGRZ’s Dave McKinley on Thursday (see video below) that he and the mayor have discussed the city’s lead problem three times in recent weeks. City and county staff members are scheduled to meet next week to discuss the issue.