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Oneida County has highest lead poisoning rates in New York

Payne Horning
The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties is launching a $1 million initiative to reduce lead poisoning in the region.

As the unprecedented crisis in Flint, Michigan brings attention to lead poisoning, one central New York group is trying to bring more attention and resources to Oneida County, which leads the state in the number of children exposed to lead.

The average number of lead poisoning cases among New York state children in 2014, the most recent data, was about 1.6 percent in each county. It was 2 percent in Herkimer County and 6.7 percent in Oneida County. The problem stems mainly from lead-based paint, according to Oneida County Health Department director Phyllis Ellis.
"Upstate New York and these two counties, it’s a lot of old buildings," Ellis said. "And, many of our buildings have been built prior to the 1970s' regulations where we were not allowed to use lead in paint anymore and lead in gas."

The Oneida County Health Department devotes $1 million a year preventing lead poisoning among children and helping them with treatment. The primary prevention program attempts to educate the public, chiefly pediatricians, parents and healthcare providers, about lead poisoning and how to avoid exposure. The secondary program tracks those children who test positive for lead and works with them to decrease their levels.

Ellis said the testing rates among one-year-old children in Oneida County are up 31 percent from 2008 and 44 percent among two-year-olds during the same period. But, the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties wants to move the needle further. It's launching a $1 million initiative to further reduce lead poisoning in the area. Foundation President and CEO Alicia Dicks said the project will hinge on pooling resources between public and private agencies.  

Alicia Dicks is the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties.
Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News

"There’s power in partnership. I firmly believe that," Dicks said. "It takes leadership, though, to make that partnership work and it takes resources; and we’re prepared to offer both and make sure, for the long, run to keep this collaboration and coalition moving forward."

The three-year campaign aims to expand current practices of raising awareness about lead poisoning, testing more children and eradicating the sources of lead. Dicks said the problem will require a long-term solution, but she hopes the initiative can start to move the needle on what has been a long-term problem.

"I think what’s been frustrating to our foundation and community is, it’s something we could take care of," Dicks said. "We could actually reverse if we put that wherewithal and focus into that activity and this community foundation has the resources to really start getting that momentum in the community and pushing those numbers down."

There is no known cure for lead poisoning. Dr. Howard Weinberger, director of the SUNY Upstate New York Lead Poisoning Resource Center, said that's why it's important for communities to focus on prevention because exposure to lead can have lifelong repercussions, including development disabilities or even death.

"We can reduce the amount of lead in the blood, but we can’t undo the damage that was done and that’s why we focus on young children because what we want to do is identify potential source of exposure very early," Weinberger said.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.