A New York Community Foundation Focuses on Ending Childhood Lead Poisoning

In Syracuse, N.Y., more than 90 precent of the city’s occupied housing units were built before lead paint was federally banned from use in 1978.

And in a surprising number of these units, children are still exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

More than 11 percent of Syracuse children tested in 2017 were shown to have elevated blood lead levels, according to the Onondaga County Health Department. In other words, more than one in 10 children in the city are being confronted with significant health issues due to conditions that are entirely preventable.

This sobering statistic has prompted the city’s community foundation to take action.

Central New York Community Foundation CEO Peter Dunn and Katelyn Wright, executive director of the Syracuse Land Bank, tour a land bank property that will need lead remediation. Photo courtesy of the Central New York Community Foundation.

Central New York Community Foundation CEO Peter Dunn and Katelyn Wright, executive director of the Syracuse Land Bank, tour a land bank property that will need lead remediation. Photo courtesy of the Central New York Community Foundation.

The Central New York Community Foundation recently announced a plan to invest more than $2 million over four years to help end childhood lead poisoning in Syracuse.

Its new LeadSafeCNY initiative will fund a variety of approaches to address the region’s alarming childhood lead poisoning rates.

The initiative’s first grants are going to support new housing construction, existing home renovations, community outreach and training and workforce development, totaling more than $439,000.

“These investments will increase the number of lead-safe homes in the city, especially in areas where there is the highest concentration of children at risk of elevated lead levels,” says Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh.

In turn, it will help improve the chances that children in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods will live healthy lives, succeed in school, and achieve success.

Lead is a toxin that affects the brain, nervous system and multiple organs in the human body.

Elevated blood lead levels in young children have been found to cause reduced brain function, impacting the skills needed for academic success, physical activity and social interaction. It can lead to a higher likelihood of ADHD diagnosis, absenteeism, criminal behavior, violence and suicide.

Children under the age of six and pregnant women living in homes that have chipping, flaking and peeling paint are most susceptible. Lead paint chips tend to have a sweet flavor when eaten, making them enticing to young children. Another common source of ingestion is the inhalation of dust particles in the air from the friction of painted surfaces when windows, doors and cabinets are opened and closed.

The Community Foundation will focus its initial efforts in and near two Syracuse census tracts that were found in 2017 to have the highest blood lead levels in children.

The first is a tract where more than 21 percent of children tested were shown to have elevated lead levels. Large refugee communities live in this neighborhood, which boasts a 29 percent foreign born population.

In the second targeted area, a striking 46 percent of residents live below the poverty line. In this region, more than 24 percent of children tested had elevated lead levels. This blood lead level data was provided by the Onondaga County Health Department.

In an Action Statement published on its website, the Community Foundation states that it is taking action now because “lead poisoning is entirely preventable,” yet it currently hinders children’s ability to enter the classroom ready to learn.

“The effects lead has on the mind and body undermine all community efforts to increase literacy rates, encourage high school completion and mentor our young people into successful careers,” said Peter Dunn, the community foundation’s president and CEO. “Lead poisoning is preventable, which makes this a social, economic and environmental injustice that is simply unacceptable to continue.”

A number of the Community Foundation’s first LeadSafeCNY grants are in support of strategies outlined in Get the Lead Out: Lead Poisoning Prevention Planproduced by the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative Greater Syracuse (GHHI). The plan describes actions that can be taken to decrease exposure to lead hazards, protect at-risk populations and encourage cross-program coordination.

“GHHI, along with its many community partners, the Onondaga County Health Department and concerned residents, have been working together for some time to address the issue of lead poisoning in Syracuse,” said Dunn. “We are looking forward to boosting their efforts for even greater impact.”

Peter Panepento