The Common Council’s chief response to the city’s lead poisoning problem involves a commitment to distribute lead test kits to residents that one expert has termed a “very dangerous idea” with the potential for “extremely hazardous” results.
No fewer than three experts challenged the wisdom of the Council’s plan in interviews with Investigative Post, including one who shared her concerns in writing last month with the office of Masten Council Member Ulysees Wingo. Those warnings have not been shared with other members, even when the test kits were discussed during Tuesday’s Council meeting.
“Overall, I think there is a strong national consensus in the lead public health community that distributing swabs as an outreach or community giveaway is a very dangerous idea unless done in close partnership with appropriately-educated health, housing or community staff to provide interpretation of the results,” Katrina Korfmacher, associate professor for the Department of Environmental Medicine at University of Rochester Medical Center, wrote in a March 4 email.
Another expert, Elizabeth McDade, the program manager for Rochester’s Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, sounded a similar caution at a March 31 meeting of a Buffalo-area lead task force meeting attended by 37 people, including city and county officials, local experts and advocates.
The meeting minutes state the task force was told: “Residents should also be encouraged not to conduct their own testing for lead in their homes because those tests are unreliable.”
Nevertheless, the Council has purchased 1,460 test kits, at a cost of about $10,000, and received $100,000 from the state via Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes to obtain another 14,000 kits.
The 3M Lead Check kits will be distributed to residents and training sessions will be offered on how to use them. Residents whose test kits indicate the presence of lead in their homes are encouraged to contact the Erie County Health Department for further action.
The swabs are intended to provide an instant response for a user who is testing for the presence of lead in paint in a home. 3M did not respond to inquiries about the accuracy of their test swabs from Investigative Post. The company’s website states the swabs are “EPA recognized on drywall and plaster” and provide “superior accuracy and sensitivity.” However, a representative of the former makers of the kits, Hybrivet Systems, told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in 2007 that “we never developed the tests for dust.”
The Council has taken no other steps to address the city’s lead problem in the face of a series of stories by Investigative Post over the past year-and-a-half. Likewise, Mayor Byron Brown has thus far been unwilling to commit additional city resources to the problem and has instead maintained that the Erie County Health Department is responsible for dealing with the issue.
Ensuring that Buffalo residents have accurate information about lead poisoning is critical because the city is ground zero for lead poisoning in Upstate New York. Experts believe the chief culprit is chipping paint and lead paint dust inside and outside of Buffalo’s old housing stock.
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.
In 2015, 273 children in Buffalo tested for dangerous amounts of lead in their blood – a 13 percent increase from the prior year.
Warning not shared
Frank Garland, legislative assistant to Wingo of the Masten District, said he discussed the email from Korfmacher with his boss. Wingo, however, said he did not recall the conversation.
“I don’t remember,” Wingo said. “It says it was [emailed] to Frank, so maybe he did.”
Korfmacher co-authored a study published in 2007 that found the swabs failed to detect lead dust hazards two-thirds of the time. She wrote in her email that the test kits chosen by the Council are very accurate in a lab setting, but “can be quite misleading in homeowner application.”
“Without strong support and education of each person using them, I believe the net result of handing these out to the public can be extremely hazardous,” Korfmacher wrote.
She further warned that residents who rely on the home test may misinterpret a reading that shows no lead in a particular part of the house to mean the entire structure is safe. That could prompt a property owner to move forward with a home improvement project that could create a lead dust hazard.
“I am sure the city would not want to be liable – ethically or legally – for such a scenario,” Korfmacher wrote in her email.
Wingo seemed unfazed by Korfmacher’s email during an interview with Investigative Post.
“It is better to do something than nothing at all,” he said.
Niagara District Council Member David Rivera, after reading Korfmacher’s email for the first time, said “it’s not that it doesn’t concern me.”
“We are doing something,” he said. “Is it 100 percent? Yeah, we’d like to do more.”
Caution expressed by other experts
McDade, of the Rochester’s Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, shared Korfmacher’s concerns in an interview with Investigative Post. She said the 3M test kits can give users a false sense of security.
“We always say ‘If you live in a house built before 1978, just assume point blank that there’s lead hazards and then work appropriately,’” she said.
“The Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning does not recommend the use of home testing kits.”
Even if the swab does produce a positive result for lead, the user still needs a solution or expertise on how to safely remediate the hazard, said Andrew McLellan, president of Environmental Education Associates and UNYSE.
“You don’t want to create hysteria and I think that may cause some people to panic a little bit,” said McLellan, whose companies provide training and lead testing.
“That’s only identifying the problem. We have to be able to provide solutions, too.”
Rivera said the testing kits were not the Council’s only response to the lead problem in Buffalo. He said Council also approved a contract to work with Environmental Education Associates.
McLellan said he’s unsure of exactly what the city wants his company to do, but he has discussed providing technical expertise and conducting some lead testing. His contracts with the city are only for asbestos air monitoring and have not been amended to include any lead testing.
“Sounds like they haven’t really got a plan yet,” he said in an email.
Lack of resources
The Erie County Health Department has primary responsibility for testing residences for lead. County officials have said they don’t have sufficient resources to tackle the problem and have indicated they could use help from the city.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz recently proposed the hiring of additional county inspectors and a nurse while acknowledging the move provides only a partial solution. His proposal faces an uncertain fate in the Erie County Legislature, whose Finance and Management Committee tabled the measure April 6.
Others have said the city and county could borrow from a program adopted by Rochester and Monroe County which has those two governments working together to inspect properties and otherwise deal with the issue. But neither the Council nor mayor have proposed doing so, or offered other initiatives. The mayor has said, however, that his team is considering options.
Rivera, the Council’s majority leader, said further involvement from the city depends on the mayor.
“It just has to be a priority at some point and say, ‘Hey, we have a serious problem here,’ ” he said.