Is New York City turning a blind eye to lead poisoning?

Sakkas Cahn & Weiss

When you think of lead poisoning, you might think about the recent news from Flint, Michigan. The city was in the news for months after its citizens learned their water was steeped with lead. But what you might not know is that recent reports found 69 neighborhoods where New York City children suffered elevated lead levels at nearly twice Flint’s rate.

That was the story in a 2017 report from Reuters and in a city that had aimed to eliminate all lead poisoning by 2010. But while the city has long set lofty goals, New Yorkers continue to suffer. Two years after the Reuters report, old apartments and negligent landlords continue to play an outsized role.

What good are laws that no one enforces?

A recent report from the Gothamist revisited the problems created by lead and lead poisoning, and it pointed to one of the same factors as the 2017 Reuters report—lack of enforcement. Officials weren’t actively going after bad landlords. Instead, the two reports found that:

  • The city wasn’t actively policing its policies. In many cases, it would only react after children got sick.
  • By 2017, the city hadn’t cited a single landlord for failing to conduct mandatory lead paint inspections.
  • The city has collected only a small fraction of the $2 million in fines assessed to landlords.

This last point is the focus of the Gothamist report, which claims New York City collected just $10,190 of the fines it had assessed. By contrast, writes the Gothamist, the city collected more than $186,000 in fines from food vendors who placed their cards too close to windows or building entrances. What does this say, the authors ask, about the city’s priorities?

The effects of lead poisoning

Meanwhile, the people most affected are those who are most vulnerable—the city’s children. Lead wreaks havoc on the brain and central nervous system, and children’s brains are still developing. Lead exposure can slow that development, and the World Health Organization points out that lead poisoning can cause long-term mental and behavioral problems.

What can parents do?

Both reports described angry parents who fought for their children and eventually moved out of their apartments when it was clear their landlords weren’t going to fix them up. But, as Reuters noted, the parents weren’t always able to move before the lead took its toll on their children. These children needed help like speech and occupational therapy.

Still, moving isn’t always an option. Nor should it be required. The laws are clear. Landlords need to provide their tenants with safe housing. Tenants forced into unsafe situations can sue their negligent landlords.

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