Stirring up lead dust in NYC housing

NEW YORK—On a crisp Thursday afternoon in October, the 300 block of East 12th Street in Manhattan’s East Village became loud.

“Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” Chants erupted. “Housing is a human right!”

The roughly two dozen protesters were concerned with lead dust and other unsafe living conditions stirred up by ongoing construction. Holding homemade signs, they stood against the backdrop of a red brick apartment building, which many call home. Months prior, the building’s landlord, Silverstone Property Group – part of the mega-billion real estate private equity firm Madison Realty Capital – began knocking down walls and merging apartments to phase out rent-stabilized units, a process people refer to as “Frankensteining.”

“There’s tons of dust and banging,” one of the protest organizers, Holly Slayton, who lives down the street in another Silverstone-owned building that was also undergoing construction, told the crowd. She said living conditions were “disruptive, horrible, and stressful.”

Slayton made multiple complaints to the city, but to no avail. “I called them so many times…the city isn’t doing enough,” she told EHN.

By the first half of the 1900s, lead-based paints had become a staple for American property owners. And lead, the main ingredient in paint that gave its color and texture, permeated American homes.

Although New York City outlawed lead paint in 1960 (the U.S. banned it in 1978), due to the old housing stock, “lead still exists in the walls of people’s homes across all of New York,” Sonal Jessel, director of policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an environmental justice advocacy group in New York City, told EHN. By some accounts, more than 80% of Manhattan buildings were constructed before 1960.

Now, as some landlords are trying to Frankenstein rent-stabilized apartments to raise the rent, demolitions stir up lead paint. And residents are often left with nowhere to turn — multiple reports in recent years suggest that while the city has progressive lead regulations, they are often not adequately enforced.

“My building is over 100 years old, how many layers of lead paint does it contain?” asked Pamela Joy Eisman, a resident of the Lower East Side who was at the protest.

Inaction from city agencies 

Highly toxic, lead can
encroach into our bones, blood, and tissues, causing a plethora of illnesses in our blood, brains, hearts, kidneys, and reproductive systems. Lead gets into every cell in our body, Dr. Morri Markowitz, who directs the poisoning prevention and treatment program at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, told EHN. Once inside a cell, he said, lead “gums up the machinery” by hijacking proteins that are made to bind other elements – such as calcium, iron, zinc, or copper – and interfering with their functions.

Lead exposure is particularly
damaging for children under six, as their bodies are still developing. And young children are also more likely to put their hands or other objects contaminated by lead dust into their mouths, increasing their risk of exposure.

Markowitz said about 70% of the children presented to his clinic came because of lead poisoning from lead paint exposure. According to the City Health Department’s
most recent report, in 2020, 2,572 children under the age of 6, and 410 between 6 and 17 years old had a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter or greater (mcg/dL), the level at which the City will start intervene. However, most researchers say there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Recent reports suggest city laws to protect these children are inefficient or, at times, ignored.

In 2004, New York City passed the NYC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, commonly referred to as
Local Law 1 of 2004. The law requires landlords to inspect child-occupied dwellings at least annually for lead-based paint hazards and keep records, fix all lead-based paint hazards after a unit becomes vacant, and use safe work practices for any construction or maintenance that could disturb lead-based paint.

However, enforcement has been scant. A 2017
Reuters investigation found that in the first 12 years since Local Law 1 had passed, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) – the agency tasked with enforcing the law – had not given out a single penalty to a landlord failing to conduct the annual inspections. Meanwhile, only one landlord was penalized for not abating lead after the unit became vacant within that period.

HPD also has the authority to litigate landlords in Housing Court for failing to maintain proper lead records or other lead-paint violations. However, compared with the number of violations, the number of litigations brought against landlords was fractional. In the
2021 fiscal year, the department issued 680 violations to landlords for failing to provide lead record-keeping documents while only 35 litigations were brought against these landlords. In the fiscal year 2020, 52 ligations were initiated by HPD out of 856 violations for lead-based paint record-keeping.

In the fiscal years 2020 and 2021 HPD issued 72 and 45 violations, respectively, to landlords falsely claiming that they had corrected the lead problems, and the agency brought 87 and 36 civil actions against the landlords respectively.

New York State requires all children to be tested for lead at ages 1 and 2. Providers also must assess children for exposure to lead until age 6 and test them if exposure risks are found. Local law requires that any time a child tests with a blood lead level of 5 mcg/dL, inspections for lead must be carried out. If lead paint violations are found, the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will coordinate with HPD and issue an order to abate.

an investigation by New York City Comptroller, Scott Stringer, released in September 2019 revealed that even though the Health Department collected the addresses of the children who tested positive for lead exposure between January 1, 2013, and October 10, 2018, the information was never passed on to HPD for follow-up inspections due to what the report called “zero communication” between the two agencies. The same 2019 Comptroller report found that between 2013 and 2018, HPD failed to inspect lead paint in 9,671 buildings associated with at least one case of child lead exposure, and the agency’s “enforcement activities have not necessarily aligned with areas of the City experiencing high levels of lead exposure.”

“Any lead in a child is bad”

Lead exposure is also an issue for New York City’s private housing. A 2019 paper published in American Journal of Public Health found that between 2013 to 2017, children living in private housing in New York City were significantly more likely to have elevated blood lead levels than kids living in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing.

The study agrees with data released by the City Health Department. In 2020, the rate of children under the age of 6 with elevated blood lead levels was 11.5 per 1,000 children in private housing, while the rate among children who had lived or spent time in public housing was 5.3 per 1,000 children.

“Any lead in a child is bad, there is no safe amount of lead for anybody to have in their system,” Jacqueline Chiofalo, the lead author of the paper, told EHN. Chiofalo is the director of policy research and analysis at The Institute For Family Health, a community health organization in New York State.

“It would be a mistake to think that only poor kids get lead poisoned,” Maxine Golub, vice president of The Institute For Family Health, told EHN. “People in private housing are oftentimes completely unaware of the risk to their children” since the process of monitoring lead in private housing is “probably close to non-existent,” she added.

Golub, who has been involved with lead poisoning prevention since the early 80s, said “30 years later, nothing has really changed” when it comes to the city’s willingness to keep its residents away from lead. “They are very reluctant to put pressure on landlords to make proper changes,” she added. “It’s really appalling.”

City and state leaders agreed.

“It’s maddening that there isn’t greater enforcement,” New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, who represents much of the Lower East Side and attended the protest, told EHN.

“This is a well-known situation. And yet we obviously are not having adequate enforcement,”

Brian Kavanagh, Chair of the New York State Senate Housing Committee who attended the protest, told EHN.

Spokespeople from HPD and NYCHA did not answer specific questions from EHN, while the New York City Health Department did not respond to our interview request.

Banner photo: Apartments in the Chelsea neighborhood, NYC. (Credit: Andreas Komodromos/flickr)