New York City’s lead poisoning prevention laws are getting an overhaul. Today, members of the City Council will vote on several new bills aimed at strengthening Local Law One, which requires landlords and other property owners to keep buildings with aging lead paint from poisoning children.
When Local Law One was passed in 2004, it’s original aim was to fully eradicate childhood-lead exposure in the city by 2010. But its enforcement has been spotty and, when it comes to some of its provisions, practically non-existent. And while the number of kids with elevated lead levels has dropped considerably over the last 16 years, thousands of children are still exposed annually. Even relatively low levels of lead can cause brain damage that can result in reduced IQ, hyperactivity and other behavioral problems.
One of the biggest targets in this new round of legislation is the Department of Education, which operates hundreds of school buildings constructed before the department stopped using lead paint around 1980, two years after the federal ban on lead-based paint.
A bill (download) sponsored by Councilmember Margaret Chin of Manhattan, will require the DOE to visually inspect classrooms serving children under six years of age for deteriorating lead paint three times a year and to do the same for school libraries, cafeterias, gyms and other common areas annually in elementary schools built before 1985. It also mandates that all inspection results be made publicly available to parents.
The legislation comes in response to a WNYC investigation last year that found high levels of lead-paint contamination in four public elementary schools. The story prompted the DOE to conduct citywide inspections last summer, revealing over 1,800 3-K through first-grade classrooms with active lead-paint hazards in need of immediate remediation.
The DOE said the majority of those classrooms were repaired before the start of the school year in September, at an initial cost of roughly $10 million, and it’s already adopted all of the changes to its inspection protocols outlined in Councilmember Chin’s legislation. The department is currently in the process of inspecting and remediating school common areas, which also includes auditoriums and bathrooms.
“While our Council has pushed the Department of Education to correct this loophole, it’s past time to codify this critical protection and make sure all school spaces are safe for our children,” Chin said in a statement to WNYC.
Although the city’s health code has long required school custodians to inspect for peeling lead paint, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s senior advisor for citywide lead prevention, Kathryn Garcia, admitted at a WNYC live event that, “It wasn’t as systematic as it should have been.”
The city hired the professional services firm Ernst & Young to conduct a full review of the DOE’s policies. A completed report had been expected by the end of 2019. WNYC has requested a copy from the mayor’s office, but has so far received no response.
Lead in Soil
Also up for a vote is Proposed Int. No. 420-B (download), sponsored by Councilmember Costa Constantinides of Queens.
For much of the 20th Century, Americans burned millions of gallons of leaded gasoline. That lead entered the atmosphere and then settled to the ground, where much of it remains.
Constantindes’s bill will require the NYC Parks Department to test soil for lead wherever the agency undertakes a new capital project, and to remediate any areas that test above the federal safety standard of 400 parts per million.
Last year, Gothamist and WNYC tested the soil in three NYC parks, including Astoria Park in Constantinides’s district. All had at least one sample above the federal standard — the highest coming in at 543 ppm in the area that’s half-grass/half-dirt that surrounds the Prospect Park Bandshell. A more recent sample collected from a ball field in Riverside Park tested at 1,244 ppm.
The bill, however, is a compromise between the City Council and the de Blasio administration, which opposed the legislation in its original form (download). When it was first introduced, Constantinides had initially called for more rigorous and systematic testing of the soil in city parks, but the city’s Department of Health doesn’t believe lead in soil is a significant source of exposure in NYC, even though lead levels in private backyards often test at much higher levels than city parks.
“This is a major step in cleaning up parks that still deal with the awful legacy this harmful substance has left,” Constantinides wrote in response to questions from WNYC. “No bill is passed in the form it was introduced. The legislative process is about negotiating what is the ideal versus what we can do immediately to make our City safer, healthier, and stronger. We will continue to work on this issue until lead no longer haunts our parks, water pipes or other infrastructure.”
No Burden on the Seller
When Councilmember Stephen Levin of Brooklyn first sponsored Proposed Int. No. 891 (download) in 2018, it included a tough provision: Anyone who sells a house or apartment in NYC built before 1960 would be required to ensure the home was free of lead-based paint before the sale was complete, or they had to work out an arrangement for the buyer to complete lead abatement work within one year of the sale.
If enforced, the measure would have gone a long way in reducing the amount of housing with hazardous lead paint, but even some public health advocates found the requirement to be far too onerous on homeowners.
Today, an amended Int. No. 891-A (download) merely expands the scope of Local Law One to include one- and two-family homes, which had previously existed within a kind of legal loophole in the city’s lead protection laws. The legislation is a mere 11 lines of text, but those same advocates believe it will go a long way toward protecting more kids.
The remaining bills to be voted on today include Proposed Int. No. 904-A (download) — requiring the Department of Health to investigate whenever it’s made aware of a pregnant person who tests with an elevated blood-lead level in order to find the source of exposure — and Proposed Int. No. 919-A (download), which will require landlords to have their buildings evaluated by a certified lead inspector.