The New York City Housing Authority has not been forthcoming about the number of children exposed to and poisoned by lead paint in its buildings, and only now are New Yorkers starting to get a clear picture of the severity of the problem. On Thursday, the Health Department released its Childhood Blood Lead Level Surveillance Quarterly Report, revealing that 1,160 kids living in public housing have tested positive for lead poisoning since 2012.
A DOH press release announcing the report emphasized that lead levels in children have been on the decline, and that "rates of childhood lead exposure are at all-time lows" across the city. The report itself notes that "children living in public housing (NYCHA) typically have lower rates of elevated blood lead levels than children living in private housing." But the report also demonstrates that, since 2013, the number of juvenile lead poisoning cases coming out of NYCHA buildings has not charted the same steady decline as private housing. Instead, it's stayed more or less stagnant, a trend we can likely attribute to the agency's habitual neglect of its units.
NYCHA's lead policing record has been badly tarnished by a 2017 investigation that documented how, for four years, the agency failed to conduct mandatory annual lead inspections in municipal housing buildings, then falsified federal documents to cover its tracks.
Initially, the Health Department reported only 19 cases of kids in NYCHA housing testing positive for lead poisoning, eventually upping that number to a still-suspiciously-low 820 children between 2012 and 2016. Against official recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which identifies lead poisoning at 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the city stuck to a 10 microgram per deciliter standard. As a result of the city's consistent underestimation and failure to act, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYCHA now face a lawsuit from victims' families: Childhood lead poisoning can lead to neurological and nervous system damage; delayed development and stunted growth; behavioral and cognitive problems; and difficulties with hearing and speech.
Asked on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday if the city was lying to residents, de Blasio insisted that it wasn't. "I don't think New Yorkers believe that every tabloid's cover tells them the whole story," he said, referring to the New York Post. Explaining that the "very stringent" (and nationally recommended) exposure standard the city uses now account for extremely low levels of lead in the blood, he insisted that the city had not violated the CDC's instructions. Rather, it had not adhered to its guidance.
"Lead is a very serious issue," he said. "It's also a very subtle issue. Every single child exposed has a different experience, it's very hard to typify, but what we do know is, one, lead point exposure has been reduced in NYC overall: 90% for children since 2005."
Yet given both NYCHA and the Health Department's history of apparent duplicity on this subject, many remain skeptical. "There's serious questions about the credibility of the Health Department with their ever-changing numbers about lead paint and lead exposure," Councilman Ritchie Torres, chair of the council's Oversight and Investigation committee, told the NY Post. "The confidence in the Health Department has been shaken."
"We'll see the new numbers in a few months," he speculated.
Health Department Commissioner Mary T. Bassett assured the Post that "the Health Department never attempts to scrub its data or mislead with numbers. We are committed to being transparent about our data and these data will be publicly available and will continue to be publicly available." She added that she "regret[s] the swirl of numbers and the confusion that swirl has generated."