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Rate of lead poisoning for children in WNY far exceeds that of Flint, Mich.

WASHINGTON – Young children in Western New York suffer from the highest rate of lead poisoning in the upstate region – a rate that’s more than three times higher than that in Flint, Mich., where a cost-driven switch to an alternate water system left 4 percent of children tested with signs of lead exposure.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the region’s high rate of exposure to lead poisoning Wednesday as he announced a legislative proposal aimed at removing lead paint from older homes.

Some 13 percent of children ages 5 and younger who were tested in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties tested positive for lead poisoning in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Out of 4,514 children who were tested in those counties that year, 585 met the federal standard for exposure to lead, which can lead to neurological damage and behavioral disorders.

“Lead poisoning is an irreversible, preventable tragedy that robs many families and children of their future,” Schumer said on a conference call with reporters. “We need to do everything we can to eliminate this hazardous lead from Upstate New York homes, which are vulnerable because so many were built before 1978 when lead paint was banned.”

The CDC data Schumer released showed Erie County with a 14 percent rate of lead poisoning – far higher than the 8.6 percent rate in Monroe County, which includes Rochester, and the 9.1 percent in Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse.

Of the state’s most urbanized upstate counties, only one – Oneida County, which includes Utica – had a higher rate than Erie County – 21.7 percent.

Chautauqua County had a lead exposure rate of 12.3 percent. Meanwhile, the rate in Cattaraugus County was 9.2 percent, and the rate in Niagara County, 9 percent.

Schumer’s office said the upstate numbers reflect CDC tests of children 5 and younger from 2014, as do the tests in Flint.

The lead problem in Flint has attracted enormous publicity in part because it is new, and because it stems from a cost-saving decision that has damaged children in one of the nation’s poorest cities.

But the problems in Erie County and throughout upstate New York are more chronic and long-standing. They are tied to the age of the region’s housing stock: some 43 percent of the homes in Erie County were built before 1950, for example, and even if they have been repainted inside, lead can linger.

The high lead poisoning rates are also tied to a 2014 CDC decision that cut in half the amount of lead exposure that the CDC said is harmful for children.

New York State still uses a blood-level rate of 10 micrograms per deciliter as the threshold where lead exposure can harm children, and Schumer said the state should follow the federal government’s lead and cut that standard to 5 micrograms per deciliter. Local lead abatements in New York have been geared to lowering lead levels below 10 micrograms.

In the meantime, though, he said it is important for the federal government to act.

He said he is proposing a new $3,000 homeowner tax credit for any property owner who abates the lead paint problem in a property he or she owns. The tax credit would be available to homeowners earning $110,000 a year or less.

“We need to act now and we need to act fast to get toxic lead out of our homes, before it is too late,” Schumer said.

Federal lead abatement grants have been cut in recent years, he added, despite the scope of the lead exposure problem. And lead paint is only part of the problem: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some 10 to 20 percent of lead poisoning in children comes from old spigots and faucets that contain high amounts of lead.

Nationwide, the CDC reported that half a million children ages 1 to 5 tested positive for lead poisoning.

Given the scope of the problem, Schumer said that in addition to establishing the tax credit for lead removal, the federal government should increase grants aimed at addressing the problem.

The tax credit would be a big help toward correcting the problem, said Dr. Melinda Cameron, program director at the WNY Lead Poisoning Resource Center.

“This legislation offers a tremendous opportunity to address children’s environmental health,” Cameron said. “The proposed tax credits would expand resources for lead poisoning prevention to a wider population of families in need throughout the U.S. This is a great primary prevention approach to protect children from the long known deleterious effects of lead at its primary source.”