Investigative Post: City Still Not Getting the Lead Out
More than a year after Buffalo’s mayor unveiled a lead hazard control plan, its measures are still not being enforced
Buffalo continues to have a lead poisoning crisis—hundreds of children were diagnosed with dangerous lead levels again last year—but you wouldn’t know it by City Hall’s slow rollout of its plan to deal with the problem.
Mayor Byron Brown announced his plan in May 2016 and the Common Council passed companion legislation in October. But an Investigative Post analysis shows there’s been little progress in executing the initiative.
- Not a single landlord has submitted a required compliance letter with the city to confirm that they and their tenant are aware that lead paint is presumed to be in homes built before 1978. In fact, Brown’s administration has only recently begun sending the forms to owners of some 22,000 rental properties.
- Only 14 of 832 property managers have signed up to obtain mandatory certifications on how to safely paint and remodel apartments that contain lead paint.
- Only 39 calls have been placed to the city’s dedicated “Lead Line” by dialing 311. Most of the calls came from neighborhoods where lead poisoning is not a problem, according to the city’s assistant director of Permit and Inspection Services.
- Only 93 homes have been visited by a contractor to conduct inspections and risk assessments for potential lead paint hazards. That’s a fraction of the 85,000 homes in Buffalo at risk for lead paint hazards, 12,000 of which have documented lead problems where children under the age of six live.
The city’s effort lacks “teeth,” said Andrew McLellan, the training director for the EPA-accredited lead hazard control company Environmental Education Associates and member of the state’s lead task force.
“I sense that the city feels that they’ve put an effort to calm concerns people have, but they really haven’t come up with anything innovative to resolve the problem,” he said.
The mayor said, however, “It’s too early to say that the program is not working.”
“While the numbers aren’t dramatically going down in the way that we would like to see, the numbers are not going up,” Brown said.
City Hall’s slow implementation of the program belies the ongoing crisis. In 2016, 257 children in Buffalo were diagnosed with high blood-lead levels that could damage their brains and slow their growth. Investigative Post estimates that another 1,000 children tested positive for lower—but still dangerous—lead levels that are not counted in state and county data.
The Erie County Health Department has also struggled to make headway.
This past year the department completed fewer unannounced home inspections for chipping and peeling paint in the city’s most at-risk neighborhoods than it did in 2014, when Investigative Post first started reporting on this issue. Inspections are down despite the hiring of more inspectors last summer.
Dolores Funke, the Health Department’s director for environmental health, said the problem may not be solved, but “the efforts that Erie County is making right now should have an impact we aren’t going to see until a little farther down the road.”
City struggles and some progress
In 2014, David Hahn-Baker, a local environmental activists who has studied the lead problem for three decades, told Investigative Post that Buffalo is “ground zero in the entire country for lead poisoning.”
Neighborhoods on the city’s West and East sides accounted for three of the four upstate ZIP codes reporting the most new cases, according to the state’s most-recent comparable data for a three-year period ending in 2012. The Erie County Health Department considers chipping and peeling paint in homes built before 1978 to be the chief cause of lead poisoning in Buffalo.
Although the number of children with elevated blood lead levels in Erie County has declined by more than 40 percent over the past decade, both the city and county have struggled to make headway in reducing the number further over the past four years.
Lead in water is another potential source of exposure.
Buffalo’s testing program that determines the concentrations of lead in drinking water did not target minority neighborhoods where the lead poisoning problem is clustered, an Investigative Post analysis found last year. Rather, the city tested the water more often in predominately white neighborhoods in North and South Buffalo where few, if any, lead poisoning cases get reported.
In response, Brown adopted a series of new initiatives for the city’s water testing program, including sampling more homes in at-risk, minority neighborhoods on an annual basis and cutting by two-thirds the level of lead in water that is concerning.
The two most-tested ZIP codes this year and last—94 of 289 samples—were in Buffalo’s East Side. From 2014 to 2016, the county reported 221 children with elevated blood-lead levels in these two overwhelmingly black neighborhoods.
That’s a striking difference compared to the testing conducted in 2002, 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2014. The two most tested ZIP codes in those years 81 of 300 samples were in North and South Buffalo where lead poisoning is not a problem. Both neighborhoods are overwhelmingly white.
Brown also rolled out his “Lead Hazard Control Plan.”
The plan includes concentrated code enforcement in high-risk neighborhoods, requires property managers to get certified in how to safely paint and renovate apartments that have lead paint, and the 311 “Lead Line.” The city also requires landlords to provide notices that they and their tenants are aware that lead paint is presumed to be in apartments built before 1978. To help with inspections, the city has a contract with a firm that conducts lead paint testing and risk assessments in homes.
The mayor pitched this plan as “an aggressive initiative” that would “reduce Buffalo residents’ exposure to hazards from lead-based paint.”
But the rollout, based on data obtained from the city, has not lived up to that billing.
The meager response from property managers is just one example. The lack of urgency to notify landlords of the new rules is another.
“Our goal is always voluntary compliance, but because we’re not gaining voluntary compliance we have to take the next step,” said Lou Petrucci, the city’s assistant director of Permit and Inspection Services.
That next step, Petrucci said, is to again notify property managers that they need to submit certifications to the city.
Petrucci explained the tepid response to the lead hotline by saying the city has had trouble reaching low-income, minority residents despite mailing almost a quarter million fliers and brochures with water bills.
“We’ll continue to strive and do different things so we can increase the number of both our property managers and the people that call us,” he said.
But neither Petrucci nor the mayor could say what exactly they will do differently to increase participation.
Rather, the mayor said parents need to step up.
“There is also the responsibility of the families to be involved in this issue,” Brown said.
The mayor’s office, in anticipation of this story, issued a press release Thursday declaring the city’s intention to more vigorously enforce the city’s initiative.
Carolette Meadows, a Buffalo mother of a child diagnosed with a dangerous level of lead in her blood, said, “as long as we sit back and passively just ask them to do what’s right they never will.”
Hahn-Baker, the environmental activist, said while he has noticed a “marked difference” in the city’s response to the problem, it’s still not enough.
“On the city side, I think that there is still a failure to devote the primary resources needed to this problem,” he said.
The city has made some progress with the mayor’s initiative.
City inspectors carried out just over 4,000 exterior inspections of homes in Buffalo’s East and West sides. The inspections for chipping and peeling paint were concentrated in the city’s worst hotspots for lead poisoning. Eleven percent, or 456 units, failed. Petrucci said he referred those addresses to the county Health Department for action.
But unlike in Rochester, Buffalo inspectors do not have the authority to regularly get inside one- and two-family rentals to test for lead paint. They only have the authority to inspect the interiors of units with three or more apartments.
As a result, conditions inside some 22,000 single and double rentals are not consistently checked for compliance by the city’s code inspectors. Interior inspections have proven to be critical in addressing lead problems in other cities, such as Rochester.
“We looked at national models, and we don’t feel it’s necessary,” Brown said of inspecting inside single and double rentals.
Meadows, the Buffalo mother, said the city and county need to figure out a way to regularly inspect inside single and double rentals. Otherwise, she said, “it’s going to be an endless cycle of lead.”
Until the city began concentrated inspections for chipping and peeling lead paint, the task of inspecting at-risk homes in Buffalo fell to the county Health Department.
The Health Department has two types of inspection programs.
One involves intervention in homes where a child is already poisoned. Health sanitarians test the entire home for lead paint and other potential sources of exposure. They can provide educational materials and information on how to remediate lead. They also follow-up to ensure lead hazards get fixed. Last year, the county completed 272 of these types of investigations.
The other program sends health sanitarians to check for peeling and chipping paint in at-risk neighborhoods, primarily on Buffalo’s East and West sides. But the Health Department does not have the authority to inspect inside homes and rentals for this program. The department has long been overwhelmed by the task.
In March 2016, the Erie County Legislature approved a five-year, $3.5 million plan proposed by County Executive Mark Poloncarz. The Legislature in May approved funding to hire a senior public health sanitarian, five health sanitarians for lead inspections, a registered nurse to provide case management, and a clerk. One Health Department official said the five new health sanitarians did not begin inspections until October.
Data obtained by Investigative Post through the Freedom of Information Law shows the county continues to struggle with the pace of inspections.
From October to December, the five new health sanitarians checked 359 housing units. That’s about one home per inspector a day.
Six other health sanitarians already employed by the county checked 531 housing units this past year. That’s less than one a day per inspector.
In comparison, Rochester inspects the interiors of about 10,000 apartments each year for lead paint hazards and tests lead paint dust to determine the concentrations in high-risk neighborhoods.
County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein refused interview requests. Two other department officials said turnover, follow-up visits and a directive from the state to attempt to also inspect inside homes has slowed their inspections program.
Melanie Desiderio, who supervises the county’s lead programs, said she prefers the approach the county used prior to 2015, which involved a general sweep of at-risk neighborhoods versus attempting to inspect home interiors.
“I am hoping we can get back to that a little because I would like to see those numbers go up as well and with a full staff I hope this year,” she said.
Others still aren’t sure the efforts by the city and county will have much of an impact.
“Everyone has always thought of the county as the solution, but the county is only going to take you so far before they’ve met their obligation and they are not going to go beyond that,” said McLellan, the state lead task force member.
“So, I just don’t know if we are going to get anything more done that what we’ve always gotten done.”
Dan Telvock is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York.