A conversation on lead in Syracuse on the Campbell Conversations

Apr 27, 2019

Lead poisoning in Syracuse is a major health threat which has ripple effects through generations, and is connected to a variety of social problems. What do we know about it? What has or hasn't been done about this problem, and what could be done? This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Sandra Lane, a professor of public health and anthropology at Syracuse University, and Peter Dunn, president of the Central New York Community Foundation.

Interview highlights

Reeher: Let’s start with the problem of lead generally, and then, I want to look more specifically at the case of Syracuse and the nature of the problem, what can be done, what hasn’t been done, what could be done in the future. So, Sandy, let’s just start with the problem with lead. Just sketch out briefly for us, if you can, what are the harms that lead causes, and how is it usually transferred into humans?

Lane: We’ve known about the problems of lead for over a century. Lead is a poison. It is toxic to brain cells. We say it’s neurotoxic. There is no normal amount of lead in the body, so the normal amount of lead is zero. Over time, we’ve been able to test children to see that it harms at lower and lower levels, so now, we worry if a child’s blood lead level gets to five or greater micrograms per deciliter. … Children who are exposed to lead as toddlers before the age of 2 or 3, when they do a lot of hand-to-mouth behavior – they’re sucking their thumbs, etc. – they can get exposed to lead in houses that have lead paint in the underlayers of paint. It’s mostly dust, in windowsills and doorframes – that’s most of it. Also, it can be in the soil around the house, and, in some localities, it can be in the water. And it has been here, but I believe that it’s improved here in the water, not eliminated. So, children who are exposed to lead as toddlers have lower rates of what we call executive function. They don’t problem-solve as well. And they’re more risk-taking. This is because lead destroys parts of the developing brain, and you don’t get that back. So, in adolescence, kids who’ve been exposed to lead as children, boys, adolescent males, are more likely to be arrested and, the higher the lead, more likely to be arrested for violent crimes. Girls who are exposed to lead as little kids, we have found, my research team, are more likely to get pregnant and get pregnant a second or third time during their teenage years. And this is because when girls get into trouble in adolescence, it’s often reproductive trouble.

Reeher: In addition to that, then, I assume that part of the other damage that occurs is in simply one’s ability to learn and achievement.

Lane: Absolutely. And in Syracuse, where we have had historically and still have an alarmingly high level of children affected by lead poisoning, in the Syracuse City School District public report card, for all of the third graders in Syracuse, only 11% are reading at proficiency level. And this is an absolute emergency.

Reeher: Can lead exposure hurt adults? You focused in on children and particularly young children.

Lane: It absolutely can. There are some studies of people who progressed to kidney failure if they had been exposed to lead. Pregnant woman who were exposed to lead poisoning as little girls, when they are in the second trimester of pregnancy, especially if they don’t have enough iron, zinc and calcium in their diet, the lead will come out of their bones and then affect their fetuses. And it is associated at that point with low birth weight. So, if you think about lead, which is kind of invisible to most people, it is associated with school failure, with risk-taking, with adolescent crime, with teen pregnancy, with early death.

Reeher: Peter, Sandy mentioned a couple data points about Syracuse, and I know that your foundation has looked at this in addition to trying to do some other things to actually intervene, so let’s just talk about the problem still, and let’s look at Syracuse. Can you give me a brief sketch of the dimensions of the problem as you found it in Syracuse and maybe anything in particular that really leapt out at you and just knocked you over?

Dunn: So, you can look at this on county-by-county basis and in Onondaga County and Syracuse down to the census track basis. In Onondaga County, about 5% of the kids had elevated lead levels. In the Syracuse area, about 11% of kids. If you go to particular census tracks within the city of Syracuse, up to 1 in 4 kids, or 25%, in certain neighborhoods are poisoned with lead. So, that is particularly distressing, and if you were to overlay those census tracks with other indicators like poverty, eviction rates, how many times a family moves in a given year, all sorts of things like that, you’d see some alarming commonalities. So, in the spirit of that the home environment can affect learning, can affect family dynamics, violence, all sorts of other things, this issue started to concern us. We’ve been active in this space for about the last six or seven years, but we sort of backed into it, is what I would say. We started creating a table of community folks, the city, the county, nonprofits, activists, folks who cared about affordable housing and housing issues through the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative about six or seven years ago and really backed into lead. It just kept coming up as an indicator of significant concern.

Reeher: You looked at this a few years ago, and now, you’ve been looking at it since then. My understanding is that the incidents of elevated blood levels of lead in children in Syracuse has most recently gone down. It’s still a problem – not suggesting it isn’t – but what can we attribute that recent decline to?

Dunn: Over the last five years, the elevated levels have gone down from about 16 or 17% in the city to around 11%, and that’s encouraging. And that shows a good level of collaboration between the city and the county. One of the distressing things is that we haven’t had the benefit of federal funding for some years through the Housing and Urban Development Department. However, that just came back. The city just got a $4 million grant to help with lead remediation in homes, and they work collaboratively on that with the county. So, folks are working together. There’s collaboration. Nonprofits are at the table. There’s lots of good stuff happening. But, if you look at the data, it’s encouraging that numbers are coming down, but, on a particular census track basis, when you’ve got neighborhoods where a quarter of the kids are poisoned, that’s really distressing.

Reeher: And Sandy, on that point. Much of the attention has been focused low-income populations in the city, and I can understand the reason for that given the numbers that you’ve already been citing. But it also sounds like if it’s 5% across all of Onondaga County, that the problem is not just in low-income housing. Is it spread out across the region?

Lane: That’s not accurate, actually. My research team looked at Onondaga County excluding the city of Syracuse, and it was quite low. So, if you add the city of Syracuse numbers into Onondaga County, yes, it dilutes the statistic. But it doesn’t mean that there’s a lot of kids getting lead poisoning in the city outside of Syracuse. Although, there are some.

Reeher: And in those instances, again, coming primarily from the paint?

Lane: Primarily, yes, but we can’t afford to entirely avoid the soil.

Dunn: And this isn’t exclusively a Syracuse issue. Any legacy city with older housing, and in Syracuse, 90% of housing is built before 1940s, so you’ve got that issue. And if you go out beyond Onondaga County to Cayuga County, Cayuga County has some particularly distressing data. The west side of Auburn has higher lead rates than any neighborhood in Syracuse. So, wherever you have housing, you’re going to have this issue, but it’s more prevalent in some than others. But Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, all have very similar issues.

Reeher: What are the different ways that this problem can be addressed? Is it a question of the lead paint not being well-enough covered by newer paint? What is exactly the problem in rental housing that creates the lead exposure?

Dunn: Where you get the lead exposure is primarily windows and doors, porches and floors, right? And mostly windows and doors where there’s friction that causes dust and causes paint flaking. So, what you can do is make a home lead safe. It’s very expensive to remediate it and entirely make it lead free.

Reeher: That would be stripping everything down and, I imagine, a very expensive process.

Dunn: As I mentioned, we backed into this and looked at the data and what are the ways that we can help as a philanthropy to move things along. You’ve got government funding. You’ve already private sources. How can philanthropy really help move things along? We made a $2 million commitment over four years to try a variety of activities and focused census tracks to try to make a measurable difference. The preponderance of our funds will be going into remediation of tenant housing. So, we’re providing, through Home HeadQuarters, grant funding to swap out windows and doors, to provide funding for landlords so that they can invest in their properties and incentivize creating safe spaces for people. We’re funding the Land Bank in Syracuse to help them test all the houses because they’ve got a lot of older houses so they know what they have. We’re funding new affordable housing in these areas. And then, we’re funding neighbors understanding the issue. … So, there’s lots of strategies, but they’re focused on the built environment.

Reeher: I was pretty surprised to learn – at least, I thought I learned – that no private homes were inspected for lead paint by the county or the city last year prior their occupation by low-income residents who are getting public rent support. And I read that in The Post-Standard, so I’m going to go with that. Now, the explanation that I read for that was that there wasn’t money for that. And immediately, I asked myself the question, “There’s money for other things in the city.” … So, I’m wondering about priorities here. Shouldn’t this be something that we as a community should be funding first rather than last? And while it’s great that non-government community partners are helping, I can’t help but ask, shouldn’t this be a core function of the government?

Dunn: Every dollar that you spend on lead remediation or lead exposure prevention is worth somewhere between $20 to $200. … So, it’s a good investment to do lead remediation, number one. There is a movement to create a policy structure that would allow for rental housing to be inspected every three years. So, the real issue is the smaller units, the one-, two-, three-, four-size units in the city, to have them really be inspected, to be tested and inspected for lead as well as other code violations. The city has made some progress in creating a new system for its code enforcement, so all these things build on each other. So, we’re encouraged by the progress in that dynamic of addressing it. Certainly, more funds could be invested. The state has expressed an interest in this issue, and something showed up in the budget defining lead exposure, but most of the money comes from the federal government.

Reeher: So, Sandra, I think you wanted to jump in on that. Go ahead.

Lane: Well, poor children don’t vote. We’ve had this problem for a long time. My research team produced a report at the request of the CNY Lead Task Force that we published in 2008. And my students and community members presented this to the Common Council at that time. There wasn’t the political will to deal with it. And I don’t know what to say. Poor children, I would guess that they’re mostly children of color but not entirely, don’t have the priority of the government.

Dunn: And as we’ve talked about it, the notion of children being the canary in the cool mine, that they’re the ones who are functionally being tested for lead poisoning. They’re the ones who are showing where the homes are being lead exposed. That makes an impact on people. And I feel like we’ve been developing over the past year some significant momentum around it. The county executive and the mayor both talked about it in their annual addresses. The legislatures are active in it. So, it’s good. It’s regrettable that it’s taken 40 years since lead was restricted in paint in the late ’70s and 10 years from when you did your study, but hopefully, we’re starting to get some progress.

Reeher: From a policy perspective, what other kinds of changes would you like to see, then, going forward in order to really help this problem?

Dunn: Well, obviously, homes should be inspected before people move in and not waiting until children are lead-poisoned by them. There have been some homes historically in Syracuse that have poisoned several generations of children, so houses don’t reproduce. They’re there. The other thing is, in 2016, we had 31 murders in Syracuse, putting us, per capita, at a rate of murders almost as high as Chicago. There’s 325 gunshot episodes in Syracuse, according to the police. How many of those young people perpetrating violence were lead-poisoned as children?

Reeher: Peter, what kinds of things, then, is the Community Foundation looking at moving forward in order to help address the issue?

Dunn: We’re looking at this on a couple different layers. First, we want to support direct investments in affordable housing or for remediation in existing housing, especially where tenants are concerned. Secondly, we want to support the network, and that includes the Green & Healthy Homes Network that is staffed through Home HeadQuarters as well as organizations like the Land Bank that are a critical cog in the housing dynamic here in Syracuse. And we want to have neighbors engaged so that there are a couple different layers of action involved, as well as policy. One of the things of policy that we’re finding is there are things that you might not even think about that affect this. … This is an issue that undermines all of our other investments.

Reeher: If someone is relying on this, let’s just call it substandard rental housing, they’re aware of this problem of lead. … Let’s say they are and then we’ll talk about the issue of awareness. What is, though, that they can do at that point? Can you call the city and say “I want this to be tested”? What can you do?

Lane: You can call the county. You can ask for it to be tested. Then, you have to negotiate with the landlord to get remediation. And now, with these wonderful programs, there’s more opportunity for remediation, and I am over-the-top glad about that. But most people don’t know that their children are lead-poisoned. We mandate testing children at age 1 and age 2, and my research team has interviewed parents in focus groups who were not told their child’s lead level. I would like to see an ad on TV with a parent maybe talking to another parent, one asking the other, “So, what did your doctor say your child’s lead level is?” and have the parent say, “Well, I didn’t ask” and have the first person say, “Well, let’s call the doctor right away and ask.”