SPECIAL REPORT: Williamsburg Children Ingest More Lead Than in Flint

NEW YORK (Reuters) -
Noah Rollins, 2, yawns as Bob Friedl checks lead levels at his apartment in Coney Island. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

A new bombshell investigative report shows that children in Williamsburg have higher lead levels in their blood than those in Flint, Michigan, and have one of the highest levels in the nation.

In public health circles, New York City is known for its long war on lead poisoning. The city outlawed residential lead paint in 1960, 18 years before a national ban. A 2004 housing law targeted “elimination” of childhood lead poisoning within six years. The city offers free lead testing in housing, vows to fix hazards and bill landlords when necessary, and has seen childhood exposure rates decline year after year.

Yet inspectors didn’t visit the Brooklyn apartment where Barbara Ellis lived until after her twin daughters tested high for lead three years in a row, she said. They found peeling lead paint on doors and windows. The girls required speech and occupational therapy for their developmental delays, common among lead-exposed children.

“Their words and speech are still a little slurred,” Ellis, a subway conductor, said of daughters Kaitlyn and Chasity, now 6. Tired of feuding with their landlord, they found new lodging in Harlem.

The family’s plight is not uncommon.

Areas of high lead exposure risk remain throughout America’s largest and richest city, a Reuters exploration of blood testing data found. In the first examination of its kind, reporters obtained New York childhood blood testing data down to the census tract level — neighborhood areas with some 4,000 residents apiece. In densely populated New York, a tract often covers several square blocks.

While poisoning has nearly been eliminated in many neighborhoods, Reuters identified 69 New York City census tracts where at least 10 percent of small children screened over an 11-year period, from 2005 to 2015, had elevated lead levels.

That is twice the rate found across Flint, Michigan, during the peak of its notorious water contamination crisis in 2014 and 2015, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 5 percent of children’s tests were high.

The risk areas spanned New York neighborhoods and demographic groups. Peeling old paint is a conspicuous hazard, but reporters tracked other perils hiding in plain sight, from leaded soil and water, to dangerous toys, cosmetics and health supplements.

Reuters found that the areas where the most children tested high are in Brooklyn, including neighborhoods with historic brownstones and surging real estate values, where construction and renovation can unleash the toxin. The worst spot — with recent rates nearly triple Flint’s — was in the Orthodox Jewish area of Williamsburg, which has the city’s highest concentration of small children.

Decades ago, Williamsburg was a low-rent and largely industrial area. Today, its spacious lofts and privileged perch across from downtown Manhattan attract the well-heeled. Working-class residents remain, too, including thousands of Orthodox Jews who have settled in the neighborhood’s southern zone since World War II.

Orthodox Williamsburg suffers alarming rates of childhood lead poisoning, ranking as the riskiest spot Reuters found citywide. Across three southern Williamsburg census tracts, as many as 2,400 children tested at or above the CDC’s current elevated lead threshold between 2005 and 2015. In one, 21 percent of children tested during this period had high lead levels. Rates in the most recent years were lower, but still above Flint’s.

On Lee Avenue, boys wearing black hats and coats stream out of yeshivos, while women shop in kosher markets and kibitz in Yiddish in front of old brownstones, many built around 1900.

“When I saw the numbers I freaked out,” said Rabbi David Niederman, head of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. “The concentration of old housing and the number of children in them are big factors.”

In recent years, city health workers homed in on the poisoning cluster. UJO and other groups helped health officials conduct outreach, distributing lead awareness pamphlets in Yiddish, urging clinics to boost screening, and holding meetings for residents and landlords.

As recently as 2015, one area tract had a rate of 13 percent, the highest in the city. It’s too early to tell whether rates have since dropped.

In 2015, 5,400 city children tested with an elevated blood lead level, five micrograms per deciliter or higher, New York’s most recent annual report on lead poisoning showed. More than 800 had levels at least twice that high.

“New York’s prevention program is renowned, so the fact it still has pockets like these shows how challenging this issue is on a national scale,” said Patrick MacRoy, a former director of Chicago’s lead poisoning prevention program.

Reporters were able to buy dangerous leaded products in city shops, including children’s jewelry. One item, a cosmetic marketed for use around children’s eyes, tested with levels 4,700 times the U.S. safety standard. It was labeled lead-free.

Soil testing in Brooklyn backyards and a park detected lead levels comparable to some sites designated under the federal Superfund toxic-cleanup program.

While exposure rates have dropped citywide — by up to 86 percent since 2005 — the number of children meeting New York’s criteria for lead poisoning, twice the CDC’s elevated threshold, barely budged between 2012 and 2015.

“Unfortunately, nationally and locally, we are beginning to see signs there is a leveling off in what was once a steep downward trend,” said Rebecca Morley, a housing expert who co-authored a recent report calling for more aggressive national lead abatement policies.

In a statement, City Hall spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie said comparisons between New York and Flint are “alarmist and inaccurate,” given the city’s sharp declines in lead poisoning and aggressive prevention efforts.

But Morley, while crediting the city’s progress, said the data show “extreme pockets of poisoning remain.”

A 2004 housing code, Local Law 1, championed by then Councilman Bill de Blasio, gave the Department of Housing Preservation and Development broad authority to cite landlords for paint hazards and get them fixed quickly. Since then HPD has issued more than 230,000 lead paint violations to landlords.

But its inspectors aren’t able to visit all older housing in a city with more than two million tenant-occupied units. And the law’s explicit goal — elimination of poisoning — remains elusive seven years past its 2010 target date.

Among the reasons: There is little or no city enforcement of two provisions of the law, designed to make private landlords responsible for preventing poisoning.

One requires landlords to conduct annual lead paint inspections in pre-1960 housing units where small children live, fix hazards and keep records. The other requires them to “permanently seal or remove” lead paint from spots like windows and door-frames where paint often breaks down before new tenants move in.

Reporters reviewed the past 12 years of HPD violation records and found the agency hasn’t cited a single landlord for failure to conduct the annual inspections. Only one was cited for failure to remediate friction surfaces between tenants, in 2010.

“If the city’s not going to nail a few people for failing to do this, then no one is going to pay attention to these requirements,” said Matthew Chachere, a lawyer with anti-poverty group Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, who helped draft the 2004 law.

Mayor de Blasio declined comment.

Sarah DuFord, a mother of two, was among the Greenpoint residents who invited reporters into her backyard to test the soil for lead.

One reading was below the EPA threshold, but others were around four times that level.

“This confirms my fears,” she said. Her next step: screening her two-year-old for lead.