Buffalo News Editorial Board: "Needed: Greater focus on the threat of lead paint"

Date: March 8, 2024

The Editorial Board | March 8, 2024

A group of 39 community organizations had every right to be frustrated. Their members gathered in front of City Hall on a chilly February day to protest the continuing exposure of Buffalo’s children to toxic lead paint.

Lead paint is mainly a problem in older homes, built before the 1980s. Unfortunately, those homes dot the city’s landscape, their paint chipping and finding its way into the mouths of curious small children. From there, it could be a matter of time before behavioral problems arise, along with irreversible effects on growth and development, and a host of other consequences including damage to the brain and nervous system.

Since at least the early 1990s, Buffalo has ranked among the nation’s worst cities for the lead poisoning of children.

All parties want a solution. The quicker the better. That is why the Erie County Health Department designated nine ZIP codes in the city as communities of concern – because of elevated childhood lead poisoning. But Buffalo has its own program that is moving too slowly.

New York State, meanwhile, allocates millions of dollars to dealing with the problem. That includes $1.4 million this year to Erie County to inspect housing for lead paint hazards and to cite owners. The city receives none of this funding. Moreover, the federal government provided about $212,580 to Erie County’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program.

City officials acknowledge their role in helping to safeguard children living in rental houses with lead lurking on windowsills, on doors and on wooden floors, to name a few. The question is whether it is working quickly enough.

Contaminated houses can largely be found in neighborhoods of color that are 12 times more likely to suffer lead poisoning than children in predominantly white neighborhoods, said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of think tank Partnership for the Public Good.

Ó Súilleabháin wants the city to take seriously the measures required by its own Proactive Rental Inspections program, implemented in 2021. So far, the program has completed 4,765 inspections out of 36,000 units covered under the legislation, and 415 certificates of compliance have been issued, said Catherine Amdur, the city’s commissioner of permit and inspection services. So far this year, city inspectors have completed 140 PRI inspections and issued 46 certificates, which seems a meager amount. But, as Amdur explained, it is a big undertaking.

One must also consider the stunting effect Covid-19 played on all facets of life. Businesses, schools and just about everything stalled during that period. Not many renters would have wanted strangers traipsing through their living spaces – even lead paint inspectors – in those early days.

Perhaps the city can comply with the community organizations’ written demand to Mayor Byron W. Brown and Amdur, for documentation within 30 days to show the city is fully complying with the rental inspections required by the PRI legislation. It would be an act of transparency.

There is a cost to the program – $2 million a year to meet the defined goal, according to Amdur. The city’s PRI program, created by the Buffalo Common Council in November 2020, is currently funded with federal American Rescue Plan money, about $1 million total over three years. The inspections are conducted at no cost to the owner.

Inspectors check for various factors affecting health and safety, including lead paint, infestation, safety exits, smoke detectors, carbon dioxide detectors and leaking pipes. Ó Súilleabháin referred to similar legislation in Rochester that has been in effect for more than a decade and “significantly reduced” lead poisoning in that city. Surely, similar efforts can be made in Buffalo.

Indeed, it is imperative that all stakeholders remain steadfast in eliminating lead paint from older housing stock, safeguarding children from the life-altering effects of poisoning.

Read the Buffalo News article on their website, here.