People in upstate New York are facing a lead poisoning crisis with damaging impacts on children at a distressing scale. Public health advocates say this is a fixable issue, but local governments’ and state leaders’ proposed solutions have mostly been at a standstill. Now, thanks to activism by local organizers, some city governments are starting to take action.
Advocates from the group Lead Free Kids New York estimate that children from neighborhoods of color are 12 times more likely than children from predominantly white neighborhoods to have elevated blood lead levels. Approximately 12%, or 28,820, of the children born in New York in 2019 are predicted to have high blood lead levels based on current exposure data.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent survey of children younger than 6 years old with elevated blood lead levels found that 4.7% of the children who were tested in New York, not including those in New York City, had blood lead levels of at least 5 micrograms per deciliter, then considered elevated blood lead levels. At the time, New York State’s population under age 6 was 1,367,038, meaning an estimated 63,700 children had elevated blood lead levels. The CDC has since updated the value for elevated blood lead levels to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that damages the brain and nervous system, causing slowed growth and development, as well as learning and speech disabilities, according to the CDC.
Troy, a city near the state’s capital located in Rensselaer County, has about 13,000 water lines, and city officials are uncertain about how many of those are made out of lead. Troy Department of Public Utilities administrators said in a June 22 City Council meeting that 8,200 of those service lines have an unknown status.
Lead exposure is pervasive across the state. Between 2005 and 2015, childhood lead poisoning rates for 69 census tracts in New York City were about twice as high as those in Flint, Michigan, at the peak of its water crisis. A big part of this level of poisoning and contamination is caused by an overabundance of aging lead pipes that carry water to thousands of households in the state.
Exposure to lead is more common for people living in older homes since lead paint wasn’t outlawed for use in residential buildings in New York until 1970. Advocates say lead service lines are also a concerning hazard for people living in older homes, although people living in newer constructions are also affected.
“That’s the main thing that [children] are consuming,” said Greg Campbell-Cohen, the co-director of Timber, a community research and advocacy organization based in Troy. “If they’re getting water from the tap, then they can consume quite a lot of lead.”
The state has about 500,000 lead services lines, or lead pipes, which advocates say have been hard to track, and their presence is largely unknown to homeowners and renters. A bill awaiting Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature, known as the Lead Pipes Right to Know Act, could make it easier for residents to know if they are being exposed to lead hazards.
The bill requires each water utility to determine which service lines in its system are made of lead. It also requires the State Department of Health (DOH) to make an inventory publicly available and create interactive maps. Campbell-Cohen believes the bill would be a step in the right direction and would help parents prevent lead poisoning in the present as they await replacement of their lead service lines.
“If you talk to parents around Troy while this was kicking off, one of the most common sentiments that was expressed was, ‘I just didn’t know,’” he said. “They’re going through their own files, trying to see if there was some sort of disclosure at some point. But they just didn’t know.”
Organizers say lawmakers at the state and municipal levels have lethargically moved to address the issue of lead poisoning, an issue the state government has been working on since at least 1992. But new local remediation projects in some cities could be a good start to fix the crisis.
Locals in Troy fight for solutions
The Troy City Council is at a significant juncture in their battle against childhood lead poisoning. Earlier this year Department of Public Utilities (DPU) Superintendent Chris Wheland proposed a 15-year plan to replace every lead service line.
New York still considers children with 5 micrograms per deciliter of the element in their blood to have elevated blood lead levels. Troy resident Jona Favreau recently discovered that both of her children had elevated blood lead levels.
“There are some developmental issues that we can’t specifically say are because of the lead in the water, but they are known side effects of having lead in the water,” Favreau said of her 2-year-old son.
The state tested Favreau’s water supply for lead last July and found that 10% of the water tested had anywhere from .045 to .047 milligrams of lead per liter—three times the measurement that triggers DOH intervention. Favreau suspects her son’s lead contamination came from baby formula.
“The feeling that I feel the most is guilt,” she said. “It’s a parent’s responsibility to keep their child safe. It is drinking water. You want to assume that this basic necessity is safe. To know that what they’ve been consuming for two-plus years was unhealthy … the guilt is there.”
Favreau spoke at a February City Council meeting, hoping to reach the families of children suffering from lead poisoning. In 2020, children under 6 tested for lead showed elevated levels at a rate of almost 25 out of 1,000 in Rensselaer County.
“We’re lucky enough that we have the resources, the time, the energy, [and] the money to buy filtered water,” Favreau said.
Favreau is currently advocating for the city to provide water filters to affected residents. Her passionate outreach helped inspire local lawmakers to address the issue. It also brought to the floor questions about a pool of $516,000 the city had received from the state DOH to replace lead service lines at no cost to homeowners. The city sat on said allocation for nearly five years, according to a document submitted to the council by the group Environmental Advocates New York. The revelations were then later reported in an article by The Guardian.
The fallout, along with significant pressure from local community organizations, has prompted the city to devise a plan to replace lead service lines. Troy has $3.1 million in its coffers, with the bulk of that coming from federal money allocated to the city through the American Rescue Plan Act, to replace about 300-350 lead service lines.
In late June, Wheland told the City Council it will cost the city $7,500 per line replacement. Contractors are replacing two to two-and-a-half service lines per day, following the same schedule as concurrent city programs to repave streets and repair sidewalks in quadrants of the city. Piggybacking off said street repairs programs, Wheland said, would help the city save time and money. At the time, contractors had replaced about 30 service lines.
The DPU also plans to target one-off properties that aren’t necessarily part of a larger cluster of lead-affected homes.
“Those are for the leaks, the emergencies, the high blood [lead] levels,” Wheland said. He added crews will start tackling other homes on the block during their visits to those one-off properties.
The city’s timeline for completing the project is unclear. Wheland declined to answer questions not vetted through a public information officer. Prism attempted to reach a spokesperson for the city of Troy to clarify the city’s cost estimates and timeline for remediation, but they could not be reached for comment.
As the city continues to plan its replacement strategy, a clear and thorough inventory of the city’s lead service lines remains largely a mystery.
Of the 13,000 water lines that go directly to residents’ homes in Troy, the city has only inspected 30% of them for the presence of lead.
Aaron Vera, formerly the city engineer who is running for a City Council seat in District 4, said a full inventory would provide a more accurate picture of the type of investment the city would have to make. Vera’s family has dealt with lead poisoning.
“It’s going to require the city putting money aside annually, but it’s also going to require aggressively going after grants that are available,” Vera said. “It’s a big undertaking.”