Quick Hit: Who’ll get the lead out?

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

One word sums up the exchange between Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick and Health Commissioner Gale Burstein about lead poisoning prevention funding: awkward.

Hardwick cited Investigative Post’s lead poisoning reporting during an April 7 Finance and Management Committee meeting when he asked if Burstein or anyone else with the county had inquired with city officials about what additional role, if any, the city might be willing to commit to.

The Erie County Health Department has primary responsibility for inspecting homes for lead hazards and employs 12 health sanitarians who inspect about 2,500 housing units a year. Burstein has said they could use more help.

That has prompted County Executive Mark Poloncarz to propose spending $3.75 million over five years to hire six more health sanitarians and a nurse to manage the cases of children who test at levels that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers to be concerning.

Hardwick mentioned Rochester’s more robust inspection program. In that city, housing inspectors check some 12,000 rental units a year for lead hazards. Hardwick asked whether Buffalo is considering a similar program.

There was a long, awkward pause before Burstein responded.

“Well, we don’t really have any authority to make changes within the City of Buffalo,” Burstein said.

Mayor Byron Brown told reporters over a month ago that he is brainstorming options with his staff, but he has yet to commit to providing any additional services or money to tackle the problem that is most prevalent in his city.

After all, more than 90 percent of the children in Erie County testing for dangerous levels of lead in their blood reside in Buffalo. Neighborhoods on the city’s west and east sides accounted for three of the four ZIP codes in all of upstate reporting the most new cases, according to the state’s most recent comparable data for a three-year period ending in 2012.

Hardwick pressed Burstein a few times to offer any insight on how Buffalo might help or what her staff is doing to open the lines of communication.

“Well, I think they are as aware of the situation as we are, so we don’t really have any political capital to make any changes in the City of Buffalo,” she said. “We don’t have any jurisdiction over their policies and procedures.”

“So, they are choosing to ignore it?” Hardwick asked.

“You’ll have to talk to them, I don’t know,” Burstein responded.

Legislator Patrick Burke said he focused on lead prevention efforts during his AmeriCorps service a decade ago.

“There was this frustration that there weren’t enough resources for this massive, massive problem, people didn’t take it seriously,” he said.

Clearly, there is anxiety emanating from Poloncarz’s administration over the County Legislature’s delay in passing his lead prevention plan. The Legislature met again April 14, but did not discuss the lead prevention funding; it did pass his opiate addiction hotline program, however.

The candid acknowledgment Poloncarz offered during a recent interview with Investigative Post underscores Burke’s point about the lack of resources to effectively tackle this problem.

“As much as I’d like to say this will eliminate the problem, I’d be lying if that is the case because I know it’s not going to eliminate the problem,” Poloncarz said.