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Lead Poisoning in City Kids Persists Despite Drop in Cases, Data Show

By Eddie Small | February 10, 2017 7:43am

NEW YORK CITY — As the Department of Education tests schools across the city for elevated lead levels, doctors say lead poisoning remains a serious problem in New York, despite a steady decline in the number of cases in recent years.

From 2011 to 2015, the number of children younger than 6 who tested positive for lead poisoning — which the city defines as a blood lead level of 10 or more micrograms per deciliter — dropped citywide from 1,332 to 908, according to data from the Health Department.

The numbers dropped steadily over the five-year period apart from one spike in 2013 and 2014, when the number of children who tested positive went up from 910 to 959. But numbers for each year in the period analyzed by DNAinfo New York were far lower than the amount of cases in 2005, when 3,082 children tested positive for lead poisoning.

"It is still a problem," said Dr. Terry Marx, a pediatrician at the Children's Aid Society. "But it's much better than it was decades ago."

The most common source of lead exposure in New York is lead-based paint in the home, according to the Department of Health, but the Department of Education has been re-testing the water in schools across the city for lead as well.

There has never been a known instance of lead poisoning from drinking water at city schools, according to the DOE and the Health Department.

The number of children tested declined from 2011 to 2015 as well, dropping from roughly 343,000 to 311,000, which was likely due to a lower birth rate in the city from 2009 to 2014 and a belief among some physicians that lead poisoning is no longer an issue, according to the Health Department.

Brooklyn's Borough Park has consistently seen the most cases of children suffering from lead poisoning since 2011 compared to any other neighborhood in the city, with 121 positive tests that year and 85 positive tests in 2015, the most recent year data that was available.

West Queens has also had relatively high rates of lead poisoning in recent years, with 118 cases in 2011 and 65 cases in 2015. The only two neighborhoods that had no cases of lead poisoning in 2015 were Greenwich Village/Soho and Lower Manhattan, according to the Health Department.

So far, schools on Roosevelt Island, the Lower East Side, Morrisania, Olinville and the Upper West Side have come back with results showing high concentrations of the metal, but the DOE and Department of Environmental Protection have emphasized that the lead found in schools likely comes from fixtures or pipes and is not from the city's water supply.

The city tests 80 percent of children in the five boroughs, measuring lead levels in their blood at least once before their third birthday, according to the Department of Health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends getting children checked for lead at 6, 9, 12, 18 and 24 months and every year between the ages of 3 and 6.

Lead-based paint was banned in New York's residential buildings in 1960, but is still presumed to exist in buildings with multiple units if they were built before 1960, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Owners of these buildings are required to conduct annual investigations looking for issues such as peeling paint and chewable surfaces, according to HPD.

Lead poisoning can cause neurological damage to children that can lead to developmental problems, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder and hearing problems.

Symptoms include vomiting, irritability and learning difficulties, but such signs usually do not appear until a person has accumulated dangerously high levels of lead in their bloodstream, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Delaney Gracy, chief medical officer at the Children's Health Fund, said this is one of the main difficulties involved with treating cases of lead poisoning, especially when dealing with young children.

"If you get into slightly higher exposure, they may say they’re tired or they’re irritable or that they have body or muscle aches," she said. "With a 5 year old, sometimes that’s hard for them to express."

Lead is typically ingested through the mouth, either through teething on surfaces coated with lead-based paint or by eating paint chips, which is why children are more susceptible, according to Marx.

"They explore with their mouths," she said, "and so it’s more likely that they’re going to get exposed to lead at those younger ages just because of what they do as babies."

Treatment would depend on the severity of the case but generally consists of removing the source of lead from a child's environment and providing children with plenty of iron and calcium to combat the lead, Marx said. Cases requiring more serious treatment have become extremely rare.

"If it’s super high — and, truthfully, I haven’t seen this kind of lead level in decades, since I was a resident — but there are kids who need to get actually chemically treated in the hospital for lead poisoning," Marx said.

The problem especially impacts children of color and children who live in poor neighborhoods, according to the Health Department.

For instance, in 2015, 60 percent of children with blood lead levels high enough for the Department of Health to intervene — 15 micrograms per deciliter or higher — were from ZIP codes where one-fifth or more of the residents lived below the poverty line, statistics from the city show. And Latinos, blacks and Asians made up 79 percent of children younger than 6 with lead at this level.

Gracy agreed with Marx that lead poisoning remains a problem in New York, largely because of issues with some of the city's older buildings, and stressed that it is still important for young children to get tested despite declining instances of getting ill from overexposure.

"I think we live in an old city, and people should be aware, and people should get their little kids tested," Gracy said.