What NYC Is Doing to Prevent Childhood Lead Poisoning

Earlier this year, the New York City Council passed promising legislation aimed at reducing early childhood exposure to lead. NYLCV commends the City Council and Speaker Corey Johnson for taking its recommendations from the 2018 Lead Loopholes report into account. Since he took office in 2014, Speaker Corey Johnson has championed two packages of ambitious lead prevention bills. As a part of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, NYLCV reflects on the Council’s decisions and their impact on lowering instances of childhood lead poisoning.

The first package of bills, enacted last year, set new standards for 2004 codes under Local Law 1. Recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, it sets a lower blood level requirement as an elevated blood lead level. It also requires an investigation of lead hazard spaces when children spend at least 10 hours a week as well as extended requirements to test for lead-based paint annually in facilities with young children under six (such as preschools and daycares). Additionally, it strengthens city enforcement by expanding lead reporting requirements and landlord accountability. Landlords are legally obligated to comply with the city’s lead laws and inform tenants about the building owner’s responsibilities under these laws. This package also requires the Department of Environmental Protection to track and publicly report all lead water lines and the main supply. Finally, it obligates a public educational campaign to raise awareness for childhood lead poisoning prevention.

The focus of the second legislative package, enacted earlier this year, is to eliminate lead hazards from homes with children and/or pregnant women, as well as public spaces including daycares, schools, and playgrounds. Under these laws, schools must conduct inspections for lead-based paint hazards at least three times a year. In addition to classrooms, these inspections include areas such as libraries, gyms, and cafeterias. This legislation is a response to the 2,701 classroom lead paint violations across 665 schools between 2014 and 2019. The bill also includes stronger enforcement against landlords who neglect to take preventative measures. The package also requires the Parks Department to test for lead levels in exposed soil where a capital project occurs and cover, replace, or remediate the area if the levels are above the federal standard. Additionally, it ensures that 1-2 family homes (not owner-occupied) are covered by the city’s lead laws and requires thorough inspections of every child-occupied residential unit built before 1960 within the next 5 years. Finally, it ensures the NYC Department of Health will investigate the cause of elevated lead blood levels of pregnant women and monitor them and the child after birth.

These policies rightfully hold landlords and city agencies accountable for lead hazard prevention and enforcement. From January to March 2020, there was a 15% reduction in children under age 18 with blood lead levels of 5 mcg/dL or greater, compared to the number of children during the same time last year. The recent bill packages can be credited for the continued decline in the rate of children with lead poisoning.

In recognition of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, NYLCV is drawing attention to the issues that these bills have not addressed. This includes enforcing city agencies to comply with lead removal requirements, such as the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the NYC Department of Health (DOH). Between 2010 and 2018, 222 NYCHA apartments across 93 developments were contaminated with lead, and documents revealed that NYCHA avoided 158 of the 222 repairs because of appeals to the DOH. The public needs Speaker Johnson and the Council to continue to champion these issues by holding these agencies liable, by urging laws for greater transparency, and applying harsher legal penalties when they fail to serve our communities. Mayor de Blasio’s LeadFreeNYC initiative is supposed to complete lead hazard testing in 135,000 NYCHA units by the end of this year. NYLCV is hopeful that these inspections will be completed soon, and that homes in need will receive immediate lead remediation services.

The number of children with lead poisoning under six in NYC decreased by 92% between 2005 and 2019. Although cases are decreasing, it has not reached zero. No child should fall victim to lead poisoning, and it’s up to the city to ensure that it doesn’t happen in their home, school, or park. NYLCV supports stronger lead mitigation laws that will ultimately eliminate the risk of childhood lead poisoning in New York City.