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Buffalo targets lead paint problem with new program

Buffalo is promising a more aggressive and coordinated approach to the city’s lead paint problem, putting a greater onus on landlords to ensure that houses are safe while also promising more lead testing, screening and remediation by government agencies.

Mayor Byron W. Brown on Wednesday is releasing details of Buffalo’s new “Lead Hazard Control Program,” which is intended to be the city’s portion of a program involving lead abatement and education that until now has largely been handled by Erie County.

County government remains the primary lead-abatement agency in the Buffalo area, given that it, unlike the city, has licensed lead inspectors as well a Health Department. But Buffalo is increasing its role by committing more funds to the effort and further incorporating lead abatement and education into a series of existing, new and expanded city programs.

In addition, city officials have reached out to the Buffalo school district, which also will be getting involved in the expanded efforts to address the city’s lead paint problem.

“We wanted to develop a comprehensive plan to be able to have a major impact on reducing the number of children that have elevated lead levels,” Brown said.

Brown said some of the plan still needs Common Council approval.

Among its key points are:

• The City Charter and rental registry laws will be amended to hold landlords more accountable for ensuring that their properties do not pose a lead danger to tenants.

Landlords will be required to disclose in writing to the city and tenants if they believe that their properties contain any lead.

Certificates of occupancy will not be issued for newly renovated units in buildings constructed before 1978 – when lead paint was used – if any lead is detected.

The city’s response to lead paint deterioration on a property will be upgraded to a citation, rather than a summons to housing court as is now the case.

• While city building inspectors are not licensed in lead detection, city inspectors, as well as the city’s Clean Sweep program, will help identify buildings suspected of being lead hazards, and refer the properties to the county Health Department or to the city’s environmental services consultant, which is licensed to dust for lead. These efforts by the city will be concentrated in city ZIP codes with the highest lead concentrations of problem buildings – 14211, 14213 and 14215.

• The city will help fund efforts to remediate at least 150 units annually – beyond the approximately 1,000 currently done by the county. Funding will come from the city, the county and, for the first year at least, the New York State Attorney General’s Office, which has promised about $350,000 toward the effort. City funding is estimated at $450,000 annually, with more than half of that expected to come from an increase in the rental registration fee for all buildings.

• A major education and outreach program will be conducted to detail the dangers of lead paint. Information will be posted online and on social media. Fliers will be distributed door-to-door and placed in user fee bills. Materials will be translated into several languages to reach the city’s growing immigrant community. Also, the city will partner with the Buffalo school system to disseminate information.

• The city will establish a new “Lead Line,” starting July 1, when residents can call the city’s 311 phone system to report suspected lead hazards.

• The city will work with the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, run by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, to purchase and distribute to residents disposable in-house lead testing kits. The Council spent about $10,000 to buy about 1,400 disposal kits, and it talked of plans to buy some 14,000 more – at a cost of about $100,000. Brown said, however, that the $100,000 will instead go toward other aspects of the city’s lead program.

“The lead poisoning problem has plagued this nation for far too long,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the National Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.

“Lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable,” said Cara L. Matteliano, vice president of the Community Foundation.

Much of the high lead poisoning, 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.

Lead paint chips and dust continue to present hazards for young children who inadvertently put these particles into their mouths, and lead poisoning can lead to neurological damage and behavioral disorders.

Lead affects the developing brain in children and is associated with lower IQ and poor social performance.

“The effects of lead exposure are irreversible. That is why it is so important to take a proactive stance in preventing lead poisoning,” said Dr. Melinda S. Cameron, medical director of the Western New York Lead Poisoning Prevention Resource Center.

Brown said the recent lead problems with the water supply in Flint, Mich., have heightened the city’s awareness about the dangers of lead. While Buffalo does not have a concern with its water, he said, lead paint is a continuing problem in the city’s old houses.

The city, Brown said, wants to partner with the county and complement what is already being done, not duplicate the county’s efforts or take over its role.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said, “I know that by working together, we can create a healthier city for the children of Buffalo.”