Lead Report Slams City Agency

Comptroller's investigation charges that multiple missteps left thousands of children exposed to the toxin.

30 Sep 2019 | 12:00

The city failed to conduct lead inspections in private buildings where a government agency knew thousands of children who tested positive for elevated levels of the toxin in their blood were living — leaving others vulnerable to exposure, according to a new investigation.

Using city data from 2013 to 2018, Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report last week finding that the Department of Housing Prevention and Development (HPD) did not perform lead inspections in 9,671 buildings that housed 11,972 children who had blood levels above the federal action level.

According to Stringer, although the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had collected data on the location of children with elevated blood levels, that information was never shared with HPD. In turn, by relying only on resident complaints instead of proactively inspecting lead “hotspots,” 63 percent of all buildings under HPD’s jurisdiction with documented cases of child lead exposure went uninspected.

“An Outrage”

Of those nearly 12,000 children who tested positive for lead exposure, 2,749 of them tested positive only after other children in the same building had tested positive.

“Any lead poisoning of our children must be treated as a five-alarm fire, but the City isn’t utilizing basic tools at its disposal to extinguish the fires – even in the most problematic buildings it knows about,” Stringer said in a statement. “Nearly 3,000 children tested with elevated blood lead levels after the City was aware of a problem in their buildings. That is an outrage.”

Additionally, the report found that 503 buildings under HPD’s jurisdiction were never visited by an HPD lead inspector despite the fact that the buildings housed three or more children with blood levels above the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s action level, which is five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (5 mcg/dL.)

During the span of time that the report covers, the city used a lower standard than the federal benchmark and did not explicitly require a lead inspection unless a child registered a higher blood lead level of 15 mcg/dL.

Lax on Landlords

In July 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s health department tightened the city’s benchmark to match that of the CDC’s standard for private apartments amid a scandal over lead paint found in NYCHA housing. In January, the administration introduced the Lead Free NYC initiative that aims to eliminate childhood lead exposure in part by screening every apartment for the toxin.

Stringer noted in his report that the city had not been sufficiently holding landlords accountable for their conduct. During this five-year period, HPD did not issue a single violation for landlords’ failures to makes required annual inspections or when they failed to comply with lead-based paint hazard control requirements during turnover between tenants.

“The City needs to fully commit to rooting out lead exposure because half measures and haphazard strategies are failing,” said Stringer. “Fifteen years ago New York City set a goal to eliminate childhood lead poisoning once and for all – and for the health and safety of every single child – we must recommit to fulfilling that promise.”

The Mayor's Defense

Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for de Blasio, said the city has driven down the number of children exposed to lead by 90 percent since 2005, and that the administration is already doing the work required to remediate the failures pointed out in Stringer’s investigation.

“We identified all the areas the Comptroller mentions nearly a year ago as part of Lead Free NYC and have been inspecting the apartments and engaging any family with a child with elevated levels,” Meyer said. “We already closed these gaps and are doing more than ever to keep kids safe.”

“The City needs to fully commit to rooting out lead exposure because half measures and haphazard strategies are failing." Comptroller Scott Stringer