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Editorial: The preventable tragedy of lead poisoning calls for a comprehensive response

The fight against lead contamination is continuing in Erie County and, as recent tests have shown, there is a need for attention.
Officials in school districts across Western New York are notifying parents of elevated lead levels in water fountains and taps. The announcements in Williamsville, Clarence, Depew, North Collins, Orchard Park, Lackawanna and Silver Creek – with more probably to come – are in response to new state regulations ordering schools to test drinking water for lead levels by the end of October.
An announcement in the Williamsville district said: “Any water outlet that exceeds the state’s action level of 15 ppb [parts per billion] is removed from service immediately. Those outlets will be remediated and retested by the certified laboratory before being used again. Remediation may include changing the faucet/fixture, adding filtration, or adding appropriate labeling to certain fixtures as non-drinking water outlets such as custodial sinks and outside water faucets. Bottled water will be available for student and staff use if necessary.”
Too much lead in the body can cause lasting growth and developmental problems in children, affecting behavior, hearing and learning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes the threat clear: “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”
It’s not only a threat to children. In adults, lead poisoning can damage the brain and nervous system, the stomach and the kidneys. It can also cause high blood pressure and other health problems.
Recent news concerning homes in Buffalo was more hopeful. The city took drinking water samples from 152 Buffalo homes and found either no detectable levels of lead or levels that met Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Even more encouraging, the city placed the bar even higher than the EPA, which recommends testing for lead in 50 homes once every three years. The city tripled that figure and then went further still by applying an even more rigorous safety standard. While the EPA’s action level is 15 parts per billion, the city tested for a third as much – 5 parts per billion, the Food and Drug Administration’s standard for the amount of lead permitted in bottled water.
The result: Of the 152 samples, 87 had no lead detected whatsoever, while 58 showed less than 5 parts per billion. And in the seven homes where testing showed lead levels between 5 and 15 parts per billion, the city is working with homeowners to fix those problems.
The testing was spurred by the calamity in Flint, Mich., where, because of government incompetence and indifference, lead has leached from water pipes and put a whole city at risk. And while Western New York has not suffered that kind of disaster, the region’s rate of lead poisoning is the highest in upstate New York – and more than triple the rate in Flint.
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 CDC. Out of 4,514 children who were tested in those counties that year, 585 met the federal standard for exposure to lead. That’s a slow-motion crisis and one that has rightfully grabbed the attention of leaders both in Buffalo and Erie County.
In Buffalo, the Common Council is expected this week to approve changes to the City Charter that would require special attention to buildings constructed before 1978, the year the federal government banned lead paint. That is a primary culprit in lead poisoning in children, who pick at cracked paint and consume the chips and dust. It would be a worthy change under any circumstances, but is especially so in Buffalo, a poor city stocked with older homes.
Lead poisoning is an entirely preventable tragedy. That work won’t be easy or inexpensive, but the focus is important given the crippling, lifelong consequences of ingesting lead. It’s as important in its own way as the opioid crisis that grips the nation. Both are deadly and this one takes dead aim at children.

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