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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: The Governor’s Budget Targets Lead Poisoning

Lead is a metal found around the world and it is toxic to humans.  For years, lead was used in paint, gasoline, plumbing and many other items.  Lead can still be found in some products and, due to aging infrastructure, occasionally in drinking water supplies.  As products containing lead are used and get worn down, say in paint, lead particles can get into the environment and pose a threat. 

And the threat is most acute to children.  As their bodies grow, they are looking for nutrients and can soak up lead instead of other, healthier, nutrients.  A child can get lead poisoning by swallowing or breathing in lead.  Often, lead poisoning is caused by lead you can't even see. Dust from lead paint is still the number one source of childhood lead poisoning.

Young children spend a lot of time on the floor. They like to put hands, toys, and other things in their mouths. This raises their chances of swallowing lead dust and paint chips. Only a tiny amount of lead is needed to harm a young, growing child.

Lead poisoning can cause problems with a child's growth, behavior, and ability to learn. Lead can also harm babies before they're born.  A child with lead poisoning usually does not look or feel sick. The only sure way to know is to get a blood lead test.

That’s why New York State enacted legislation to require that all children be screened for lead.  Every child in New York must be tested at 1 year and again, at 2 years of age. There are about a half million kids in this age category.

According to the state Health Department, over the most recent three years nearly 500,000 children under the age of six were screened for lead poisoning.  For the last year in which the Department has reported (2015), roughly 1,800 kids tested at levels that exceeded 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.  This epidemic affects mostly young children of color from low-income communities who live in poorly maintained housing, where windows, doors, walls and ceilings produce invisible lead dust that is ingested by infants and toddlers through hand-to-mouth behavior and inhalation. 

Unfortunately, New York’s housing puts children at elevated risk of lead poisoning.  New York has both the nation’s greatest number (3.3 million) and the highest percentage (43.1%) of its housing stock built before 1950, the houses most likely to contain lead paint, the leading source of childhood lead poisoning.

Because lead harms children even in tiny concentrations—parts per million levels—small increases in the concentration of lead in a child’s blood level can have substantial cognitive impacts, with comparatively low blood lead levels correlating with significant IQ loss. 

In 1970 when it banned lead in paint, New York was among the nation’s leaders in taking action—almost a decade before the national residential paint ban.  However, in 2019 New York lags in childhood lead poisoning prevention in several key respects.  As a result, thousands of New York’s children ingest dangerous levels of lead and could suffer permanently from this entirely preventable exposure. 

Governor Cuomo’s budget proposes to respond to this public health crisis by lowering the acceptable blood lead level from 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dl) to 5 µg/dl.  The governor also proposes to spend more on this problem by proposing an additional $9.4 million annually for state and local health departments to implement this plan.  In addition, the governor proposes that residential rental properties statewide are maintained in a condition that protects children from the dangers associated with exposure to lead based paint hazards.

Lowering the “acceptable” lead level is a good move, but long overdue.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) took that step in 2012 and has since been enacted in several states, including, namely Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Vermont.  All these states cite their decision to move towards the lower CDC guidelines as based on the evidence that supports early intervention as the primary way to prevent the serious health effects suffered by victims of lead poisoning.  Even some localities in New York State have acted, including the cities of Buffalo and New York City.  If the governor’s plan is approved, New York would join that list.

This is a matter of utmost importance to public health, social justice and investment in New York’s future, its children.  2019 should be the year New York gets the lead out.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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