BORO PARK, FLATBUSH, GREENPOINT – High rates of childhood lead exposure remains a persistent issue in a handful of neighborhoods, despite an overall drop city-wide, NYC Department of Health (DOH) reports.
Borough Park and Greenpoint, which for this study included much of Williamsburg, have the highest concentration of children under the age of six with a blood lead level (BLL) of more than 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) — the level that the CDC considers “much higher than most children’s levels.” These neighborhoods are home to some of the largest Hasidic communities in the world.
“Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child’s health, including damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems,” warns the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Although the rate has fallen slightly from 2017 to 2018, 4% of young children in Williamsburg still have a BLL of over 5 mcg/dL — the highest rate of any neighborhood in New York City. Borough Park remained at 3.2% exposure rate and the rate in Flatbush increased from 1.7% to 2% – all much above the city average of 1.3%.
These neighborhoods are a stumbling block for what has otherwise been a resoundingly successful campaign by the NYC Department of Health to reduce early childhood lead exposure. The rate of young children with a BLL of over 5 mcg/dL has plummeted in Brooklyn from 14% to 1.8% over the last fifteen years. Other neighborhoods with higher than average rates are Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, Crown Heights, and Bed Stuy.
The effort to decrease lead exposure has centered around removing lead paint from buildings built before 1960, the year when lead paint was banned in New York City.
“In just the first half of 2019, NYC has seen a 10% decline in the number of children with EBLLs citywide. However, as we have said consistently, the only acceptable number of children exposed to lead in our city is zero,” said the NYC Health Department in a statement to Bklyner. “In order to achieve this, NYC Health Department, in partnership with other city agencies, has taken aggressive action to prevent lead exposures and address the sources of exposure directly. We will continue to work with neighborhood leaders, medical providers and trusted community-based organizations to increase awareness about lead poisoning prevention across the City.”
Leaders in the Hasidic Community are working alongside the NYC Department of Health to raise awareness about and provide grants to remove the problematic paint.
Sam Stern, an organizer for the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn (UJO), sees the conditions in the Hasidic areas of Brooklyn as a perfect storm for lead exposure.
“In South Williamsburg you have a concentration of public housing and so many families live there,” said Stern. “The area is heavily industrial. Therefore it was very natural for Williamsburg to have high lead levels. Plus you have a concentration of old housing. So you take everything together and this is what you get. These are the ingredients in the soup.”
The UJO’s role in this process often involves overcoming the language and cultural barriers that might have frustrated earlier attempts from the city to remove lead paint.
“We’re working with the city and doing our own outreach in our own native language,” said Stern. “We have literature and bus ads. We went into schools, we went into daycares — just to make people aware.”
On November 7 the De Blasio Administration announced a plan to use a data-based strategy to combat early-childhood lead exposure. Under this program, the city will automatically carry out targeted inspections of the homes of children whose BLL measures above 5 mcg/dL.
“We are doubling down on our efforts to eradicate childhood lead exposure through ‘LeadFreeNYC.’ This unprecedented outreach effort to 100,000 homes will hold landlords accountable and keep our kids safe,” said Kathryn Garcia, DSNY Commissioner and Senior Advisor for Citywide Lead Prevention, in a press release.
This initiative comes in the wake of Comptroller Scott Stringer’s damning investigation into the city’s failure to use lead exposure data to guide lead paint elimination strategy.
“The Comptroller’s Office found that for years, the City allowed crucial data — namely thousands of children’s blood lead test results collected by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) — to remain siloed within DOHMH, rather than using the data to proactively pinpoint lead exposure hotspots for inspection by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD),” said the report. “Instead, the City allowed HPD to rely almost exclusively on a reactive, complaint-driven inspection protocol.”
Rabbi David Niederman, the President and Executive Director of the UJO, says the NYC Department of Health has been enthusiastically helping the UJO’s campaign, which started two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, Jewish Community Centers in other parts of Brooklyn have started their own campaigns in cooperation with the UJO.
“The more we can do the better, because children’s futures are being affected by those levels,” said Rabbi Neiderman.