Lead Poisoning in the Time of COVID-19

Finding safe, lead-free housing in Syracuse was an issue before COVID-19 caused a global upheaval. But now, during a pandemic that has led to financial strain across our community, the risk of childhood lead poisoning is amplified.

New York State and the nation are currently in an eviction moratorium, which means that tenants who have experienced hardship due to the pandemic cannot be evicted for nonpayment of rent. However, that may also mean that landlords who are not being paid rent are less apt to want to spend money on maintaining their properties. In addition, fears of contracting the virus are delaying maintenance schedules and inspection visits.

“COVID-19 is complicating an already challenging story in our community,” said Debra Lewis, Lead Poisoning Prevention Program coordinator for the Onondaga County Health Department. “With maintenance being left undone, paint continues to deteriorate, which means that children may be living in hazardous lead conditions for a longer period of time.”

Debra and her team find children with lead poisoning in a few different ways. The main indicator of lead poisoning is a blood test. If a child shows high levels of lead in their blood, the report is sent to the Health Department to investigate. They also may receive referrals from Section 8 housing. Any unit funded by Section 8 is referred to the Health Department and will be inspected if children under age six will be living in the home. Future or current renters may also call in to request an inspection.

The process is generally called a lead inspection, but Lewis prefers the term “exposure investigation.” During the investigation, peeling and chipping painted surfaces are tested for lead in the child’s home. The exposure investigation also may require the inspector to go to any other property where the child spends time, like a grandmother’s house or childcare facility. The majority of childhood lead poisoning comes from paint and household dust, but lead can also be found in food, soil, spices, toys from discount chains and more. After an inspection, the property owner is expected to make the necessary repairs to reduce the amount of lead in the home.

The Onondaga County team perform over 300 investigations per year, but they expect that number to be higher this year due to the CDC’s revision of “acceptable” blood lead level limits from ten to five micrograms per deciliter. The change, made in September 2019, drives the public health response leading to an exposure investigation and may result in nearly double the amount of inspections required this year.

Tenants who are being exposed to high levels of lead often don’t have the funding to move, despite their desire to do so. Lewis noted, “If you can find affordable housing in our community, given the amount of money people have to spend on housing, and the age of local housing stock, the condition of the property is likely to both contain lead based paint and to be fraught with additional health and safety problems.”

Recently, the Health Department received initiative LeadSafeCNY grant from the Community Foundation to help families who need to move after a lead exposure investigation has been completed, but that may lack the funding to do so. The Community Foundation’s endorsement follows a 4-year, $2 million commitment announced by the organization in late 2018 to help end childhood lead poisoning in the city. Since then, more than $780,000 has been awarded to nonprofit organizations. In an Action Statement published on its website, the Community Foundation states that it is taking action now because “lead poisoning is entirely preventable,” yet it currently hinders children’s ability to enter the classroom ready to learn.

As a licensed social worker, Lewis is always looking at the intersection between person and environment. After ten years in her position at OCHD, and a lot of behind the scenes work with other organizations, she is grateful to see the recent lead ordinance that the Community foundation advocated for come to fruition in Syracuse. Lewis believes, “Every child deserves to live in a safe and healthy home; and every parent deserves to have the confidence that a home they have chosen will be maintained in a safe and healthy manner by the person who owns it.” She also stated that landlords should consider their rented housing as a business by following all local, state, and federal housing regulations.  Owners can be held accountable by any regulatory entity for not addressing housing conditions impacting the health and safety of their renters. Additionally, on September 14, 2020, Syracuse passed an additional renter protection: Now, landlords who have failed to register their one-and-two-family rental homes will be barred from evicting tenants.

Lewis assures her clients that the Health Department is still working hard to investigate all of their properties amid the pandemic. She is always happy to answer questions in the meantime.  You can contact her at the Onondaga County Health Department’s office.

For renters with lead poisoning concerns, call 2-1-1 or visit the CNY211 website to find the correct avenue for finding help.

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