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Attorney general earmarks lawsuit money to help Buffalo combat lead poisoning

After learning that 14 percent of children in Erie County – 1 out of every 7 – tested positive for lead poisoning, New York’s attorney general is earmarking $346,825 in lawsuit settlement money toward local lead prevention and remediation.

“As we have seen yet again with the recent lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Mich., investments must be made in lead intervention and remediation to prevent devastating health impacts, particularly for our children,” Eric T. Schneiderman said in a statement.

But that onetime infusion of money has limited effect in a community where tens of thousands of homes are believed to have hazardous lead exposure problems.

The $346,825 will likely help resolve lead exposure issues in roughly 40 to 50 homes, said Cara Matteliano, vice president for community impact with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

The foundation’s Green and Healthy Homes Initiative has helped hundreds of homeowners with a variety of home repair and lead abatement services, Matteliano said. The money provided by the attorney general would be reserved specifically for lead abatement work, which can involve window replacements, doorways and threshold maintenance and repainting that encapsulates areas where old lead paint is exposed, she said.

But rental properties, where many poorer families with children live, would not be eligible for this funding.

While every home rehabbed through Buffalo’s Green and Health Homes Initiative is considered a victory, Matteliano said, the region needs a more comprehensive strategy and buy-in from the city, county, housing and law enforcement agencies to create the kind of impact necessary to combat lead poisoning in this community.

“There are a lot of players that could be very helpful in finding a more seamless solution,” Matteliano said.

The money allocated by the attorney general comes from a lead contamination lawsuit settlement against Mattel and Fisher-Price.

Lead poisoning prevention is a major public health problem in Buffalo, local experts say. The onetime cash infusion from Schneiderman will help, they say, but the problem is huge in a community where children test positive for lead poisoning at triple the state average.

“This will not solve the problem for Buffalo, but certainly any money that is earmarked toward rehabbing the homes in a safe way is good for the city,” said Dr. Melinda Cameron, medical director of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Resource Center at Women & Children’s Hospital.

Lead exposure prevention is much more effective than medical intervention when it comes to lead poisoning, Cameron said.

While children with high lead levels receive medical treatment, she said, many other children can’t be helped.

“There’s a whole lot of other kids with lead at lower levels that we can’t do anything about,” she said.

Buffalo has the highest percentage of homes built before World War II of any large city in the nation. Lead-based paint was a feature of homes built before 1978, and lead paint chips and dust continue to present hazards for young children who inadvertently put these particles into their mouths. Lead poisoning can lead to neurological damage and behavioral disorders.

As Sen. Charles E. Schumer pointed out last week, young children in Western New York suffer from the highest rate of lead poisoning in the upstate region, a rate more than three times higher than that in Flint, Mich., where a switch to an alternate water system left 4 percent of children tested with signs of lead exposure.

Some 13 percent of children ages 5 and younger tested in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties showed signs of lead poisoning in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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.