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Poloncarz takes aim at lead poisoning with $3.75 million initiative

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said he wants to nearly double the number of environmental health inspections and buy new equipment to advance Erie County’s effort to curb lead poisoning.

And Buffalo is going to start taking a larger role in getting city houses tested for lead.

The initiatives come as federal data, released last month by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., show children in Western New York – ages 5 and under – suffer from the highest rate of lead poisoning in upstate New York. The data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Erie County with a 14 percent rate of lead poisoning – compared with 8.6 percent in Monroe County, which includes Rochester; and 9.1 percent in Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse.

Poloncarz proposes to spend $3.75 million over the next five years on the county initiative.

“Lead poisoning is an insidious disease, and one that parents are not aware they may be exposing their child to danger,” Poloncarz said. “To say this will alleviate the problem – no, this will not completely alleviate it. This will make a big difference.”

Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said she hoped the money would further reduce lead poisoning levels in Erie County children by 60 to 70 percent.

Much of the high lead poisoning rates, officials said, can be traced to Buffalo’s housing stock. The city has the highest percentage of homes built before World War II of any large city in the nation.

Many homes were built before 1978, when lead was banned from paint. Old paint and dust from lead paint are considered to be the leading pathways for exposure in children. Lead exposure can result in impaired brain development, neurological problems and other ailments.

Poloncarz said the impetus for strengthening the county’s efforts against lead poisoning resulted from the CDC’s 2014 redefinition of lead poisoning in children. Federal guidelines now require action when a child’s blood-lead level tests at least 5 micrograms per deciliter. The previous threshold was 10 micrograms.

“As the result, it basically doubles the amount of work we have to do,” Poloncarz said. “This will allow us to do everything that we were doing before, plus meet the new requirements under the lower, more strict standard.”

In Buffalo, the contractor the city hires to do environmental air sampling when houses are demolished is also certified to do lead testing, and will start doing some lead testing for Buffalo, said James W. Comerford, Buffalo’s commissioner of permits and inspections.

Lead testing is a service provided by the Erie County Health Department, but given the lead problem that exists in Buffalo, the city is looking for ways it can help out.

Buffalo does not have any licensed lead inspectors, so currently, when city inspectors suspect lead in a home, they contact Erie County. Now, they will ask their contractor, Environmental Education Associates UNYSE of Buffalo, to do the testing. The results will be forwarded to Erie County, which would follow up with the homeowners and residents if there is a lead issue, Comerford said.

“We are doing an internal review of a variety of different ways we can help address the lead issues in the city of Buffalo,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. “This is one of a number of ideas that commissioners and directors came up with,” Brown said of having the city’s environmental contractor help with lead testing.

Comerford on Tuesday asked the Council to approve a final one-year extension of the city’s UNYSE contract. Under the contract, the company will be paid up to $500,000 to conduct air monitoring and asbestos home surveys associated with demolitions, as well as the added lead testing component.

“We’ve been involved in lead for a long time,” said Andrew McLellan, UNYSE president, who said he is on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Task Force on Lead. “We can address the issue. I’d love to help the city out with this. I know we can get this under control.”

Last week, at the request of Council President Darius G. Pridgen, the Common Council agreed to purchase disposable lead testing kits to distribute to residents, and to also create pamphlets on lead poisoning to hand out to residents.

Lead poisoning has gained renewed attention in recent months because of the national focus on Flint, Mich. Children there were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water after municipal officials failed to protect the city’s water supply. That resulted in the corrosion of pipes and leaching of lead into the public water system.

“In Flint, it’s in the water,” Poloncarz said. “Here, it’s not in the water; it’s on the walls.”

He added, “You hear the stories of what’s happening in Flint and you also read the reports that we get here that kids have higher levels of lead exposure in Buffalo, Lackawanna, the City of Tonawanda than kids in Flint. We’ve got to fix this.”

Erie County’s program, if approved by the County Legislature, would allocate $750,000 from county savings each year over the next five years. That revenue infusion would be in addition to the $438,298 that Erie County currently puts into its lead program annually for staff.

The new money would cover the cost of five additional field inspectors and a supervisor to inspect homes and issue violation notices. It would also be used to hire a nurse dedicated to managing cases of children with lower-but-still-dangerous lead levels of lead poisoning that fall below 10-microgram threshold.

Finally, money would also be earmarked for an additional clerk to handle legal paperwork.

Since lead dust and paint chips inhaled and eaten by children often come from raising and closing old windows, the county is also earmarking $436,838 in leftover funds from earlier years of the lead prevention and remediation program to give out low-interest loans or grants for window replacements, based on a sliding income scale, over the next five years.

Overall, the Erie County Health Department runs three separate programs targeting lead poisoning. Funded through roughly $3.27 million in local, state and federal appropriations, health officials said the initiatives have made a difference over the last 15 years.

The rate per 1,000 children, aged 1 to 5, who have been confirmed with high levels of lead in their blood has been on a mostly consistent decline from about nine per 1,000 children in 2001 to roughly six per 1,000 last year.

Despite the advances, county officials said it’s not enough.

“Lead is a very potent neurotoxin,” Burstein said. “This is a big problem. We need all hands on deck.”

Burstein said children’s brains develop rapidly at the youngest ages after birth.

When they’re exposed to lead, it affects that development, which could lead to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a lower IQ and learning disabilities. At higher levels, lead can have more acute internal effects to the kidneys, gastrointestinal tract and neurological system, she said.

Nine “communities of concern” have been identified in Erie County as places “where children are at exceptionally high risk for lead poisoning.” They’re broken down first by ZIP code, and then into smaller microareas for concentration by the Health Department. The ZIP codes are all predominantly in the city of Buffalo. They include: 14201, 14207, 14208, 14209, 14210, 14211, 14212, 14213 and 14215.

“We have to go to where the problem is,” Burstein said.

Since 2008, Erie County inspectors have visited 12,733 homes and, on average, overseen the annual remediation of nearly 1,000 homes in the city of Buffalo and roughly 500 more in places like Angola, Colden, Tonawanda, West Seneca and Lackawanna, according to Poloncarz.

County officials also pointed out that 1,447 property owners or landlords who failed to voluntarily comply with lead abatement in their properties were taken to Housing Court.

Erie County residents who are concerned that lead may be a problem where they live are encouraged to contact the Erie County Health Department at 961-6800.

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