Lead is a dangerous environmental toxin and exposure to it can cause irreparable neurological and behavioral health consequences, especially in children. Before New York City’s ban on lead paint in 1960, this type of paint was commonly used and it can still be found in old buildings. The City has continued to tackle this public health issue and enacted Local Law 1 of 2004 to hold landlords accountable for addressing lead hazards in their buildings, which helped bring about a decline in childhood lead exposure.
According to the NYC Department of Health, the most commonly identified source of lead poisoning for children in New York City is lead paint and its dust, which significant exposure to can cause elevated blood lead levels in children. The most common pathway is from peeling lead paint and by inhaling lead dust. Other potential exposures include eating or drinking lead-contaminated food or drinks, playing with toys that contain lead paint, or using dishes that contain lead.
There has been a considerable amount of recent news regarding the enforcement of lead poisoning prevention laws in NYC. Over 900 classrooms for the City’s youngest students were recently found to have been contaminated with peeling lead paint, which the Department of Education worked to remediate and a recent report by Comptroller Scott Stringer found that the City did not conduct lead testing in thousands of old residential buildings, where they knew lead paint to be present in other units.
Since removing toxins from our environment is one of NYLCV/EF’s top priorities and was included in our 2019-2020 NYC Policy Agenda, we teamed up with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, Cooper Square Committee, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice to publish a report on inadequate enforcement of the lead dust standards in LL1. This report follows our 2018 report showing inadequate enforcement of the primary prevention measures in Local Law 1, which are intended to ensure lead hazards are identified and abated before children are exposed. These primary prevention measures are mandates that every child occupied dwelling in buildings built before 1960, 1) landlords annually inspect the units for signs of peeling paint and 2) landlords fully abate the lead paint on friction surfaces when there is a turnover between tenants.
These two reports highlight how the under-enforcement of Local Law 1 continues to put New York children’s health at risk.
The new report, titled Collecting Dust, shows that there are gaps in the enforcement of Local Law 1’s safe work practice regulations that protect against lead dust exposure. We found that the City is collecting penalties for lead-safe work practices violations at a significantly lower rate than other health areas it enforces.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) is the primary agency that enforces Local Law 1 and is responsible for ensuring safe work practices during construction and renovation in buildings with the presumption of lead paint- buildings that were built before 1960. DOHMH is also responsible for investigating complaints and assessing penalties.
The report looked at publicly available data from the NYC Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) for violations of safe work practices for construction in buildings with lead paint. If not properly controlled, construction in buildings with lead paint can leave residents and workers exposed to lead dust.
In the 15 years since LL1 went into effect, just under $2 million penalties have been assessed for failure to use Safe Work Practices to protect tenants from lead dust. Of that $2 million, the City collected only 0.5% of the total amount of penalties assessed– a shockingly low rate of enforcement. Since Local Law 1 was enacted, just 12 penalties have been collected.
In contrast, DOHMH imposed 21 times the amount of penalties for mobile food vending violations than it did for lead-related violations, collecting $5 million from street vendors for violations such as “cart touching or leaning against a building.” over the same time period.
At a recent City Council oversight hearing on lead poisoning prevention, the de Blasio Administration testified that there may be modestly more enforcement. We look forward to working with them to ensure improved enforcement of these laws.
The report provided detailed recommendations for improving accountability: fully enforce the existing law and vigorously seek and collect penalties; break down government silos; and increase transparency to create more public accountability. By implementing our recommendations, the City would be able to proactively eliminate lead poisoning.
We believe with meaningful enforcement of Local Law 1, the city will be able to protect the health and safety of all New Yorkers, especially children. We will keep advocating for policies that prevent lead poisoning and protect our children’s health.