820 Children Under 6 in Public Housing Tested High for Lead

The Grant Houses in Harlem, one of scores of developments run by the New York City Housing Authority where lead paint has been found in apartments.

Even though the New York City Housing Authority has been under a microscope for flouting lead-paint safety regulations for years, the exact number of children residing in public housing poisoned by lead was never disclosed.

Over the weekend, the city department of health offered a number: It said that 820 children younger than 6 were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood between 2012 and 2016.

The children tested positive for lead levels of 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter, the minimum amount for which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that localities intervene. The health department sent “detailed letters” alerting the children’s parents and health care providers and offering guidance on how to reduce exposure, said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But the health department did not inspect apartments the children lived in because the city policy — which city officials say follows federal recommendations — requires a lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter before an apartment would be inspected and Nycha, as the housing authority is known, would be notified.

The number of cases, first reported by The New York Daily News, is significantly larger than noted by the United States attorney last month in a civil complaint filed against Nycha after a yearslong investigation that accused it of mismanagement and malfeasance.

Federal prosecutors said that at least 19 children were found to have been exposed to deteriorated lead paint in their Nycha apartments. But they cautioned that “this number understates the true extent of the harm likely caused by Nycha’s violations.”

Ms. Lapeyrolerie said “the city has never said that the 19 were the entire universe of Nycha with lead exposure.”

The new number expands the extent of lead paint exposure in New York City’s public housing complexes after the housing authority admitted in a consent decree that there was lead paint inside apartments in at least 92 of its 325 housing developments. The authority also admitted that it failed to inspect for lead paint hazards from at least 2012 to 2016 and to ensure that its staff was trained to safely remediate the hazard.

As part of the consent decree, the authority is awaiting a court-appointed monitor who will ensure the agency’s compliance with regulations and oversee an infusion of at least $2 billion in operational and capital funds from the city.

The higher number outraged some officials, including the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, who said in a statement that his office would investigate “the city’s procedures for addressing lead poisoning hazards to protect the health of all children.”

“It is horrifying that the department of health kept this information under wraps and it is outrageous that the city continues to justify and minimize this scandal,” Mr. Stringer said.

In response, Ms. Lapeyrolerie said that the health department always abided by federal guidelines.

Lead can cause devastating harm in children, stunting their intellectual growth and affecting cardiovascular, hormone and immune systems.

A health department official said the city has recently changed its policy and has begun inspecting all Nycha apartments where children under 18 years old have been found with a lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter or more. And, on Sunday, the city said it would expand that policy citywide by the end of the year.

“We expect to reach thousands of children this way,” said Corinne Schiff, the deputy commissioner of environmental health at the health department.

The data released by city officials also showed that the number of children under age 6 in public housing with elevated blood levels has steadily decreased from 229 in 2012 to 114 in 2016. Health officials said the five-year figure of 820 represents primarily individual children rather than the same children being tested year after year. Close to one-third of the 400,000 residents living in public housing are children.

Citywide, childhood lead poisoning has decreased by 87 percent from 37,344 cases in 2005 to 4,928 in 2016.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said new research has shown that lead is toxic even at low levels.

“The city is responding to new information,” Dr. Landrigan said. “I think the city is trying to do the right thing here.”

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