Lane is chair of the department of Health and Wellness in the school of Human Ecology at SU and a professor of social work. She holds a joint appointment with SUNY Upstate Medical University, where she is a research professor with the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The full study is available by contacting the SU Department of Health and Wellness at 443-2048.
“People say lead poisoning is a thing of the past,” explained Inga Back, program coordinator for Onondaga County’s Lead Poisoning Control Program. “But lead levels are still too high in certain areas of Syracuse. It can be so damaging.” Back leads a staff of 14 people working with the county to prevent lead poisoning.
Over the past decades studies have demonstrated that high levels of lead in children’s blood results in lower IQs as adults. In recent years a number of steps have been taken, mostly by federal initiative, to reduce childhood exposure to lead. Lead paints were phased out and banned altogether. Leaded gasoline is no longer sold. Still, Lane and her colleagues would like to go further, and are suggesting that the city or the county enact a law mandating that any rental unit would have to be tested for lead before it could be occupied.
The city of Rochester enacted such a law in 2005, mandating that all rental units in the city built before 1978 be inspected and, if lead is found, be made safe. Most houses simply require a visual inspection, but older houses in poor neighborhoods will have their windowsills wiped and tested for lead. Preliminary studies have shown that 94 percent of units tested were lead safe, and those needing remediation required an average expenditure of less than $2,000 to do the work. Federal funding is available to help landlords make their units lead safe.
Lane maintains that such an ordinance would not only help children, it would save money in the long run. “There is no safe level of lead in the blood,” she said. “It’s a neurotoxin, and causes harm to developing brains. What we are now learning from animal studies is that rats with higher levels of lead in the blood have a greater propensity to impulsivity. There has been an explosion of studies in the past 10 years showing that lead causes a decrease in executive function.” That, by Lane’s definition, is “a constellation of behaviors that make it harder for people to plan ahead, harder to plan for the future.”
Lane and her students extrapolated from their research and other studies to come up with projections of the impact of lead poisoning on the city of Syracuse. If their study is even close to accurate, the costs to individuals and society of this ongoing lead problem are staggering.
Among their conclusions:
• Lead poisoning in young children robs their learning potential. Among children with elevated blood lead, every 1 mcg/dl (microgram per deciliter) of blood lead decreases their school attendance by 0.131 years. They projected that this factor would result in an estimated 86 students per year dropping out in the ninth grade.
• Lead poisoning increases the need for special education. The study estimated that 20 percent of children with elevated levels will need special education services for three years each. Among current Syracuse City School District students, grades 1 through 12, the extra cost for special education used by this group, is estimated to be $838,157.
• An estimated 38 percent of repeat teen pregnancies in Syracuse are attributable to the cognitive and behavioral consequences of childhood lead poisoning; the estimated Medicaid bill for those repeat pregnancies is $106,129 per year.
More recently, a study done in Cincinnati and published in the online journal www.plosmedicine.org demonstrated that for every 5 mcg/dl of lead found in the blood of children looked at, there was a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that child would be arrested later in life. That study estimated that 11 percent of all juvenile delinquency cases are due to childhood lead poisoning. From this data, Lane’s team estimated that, in Syracuse, $323,758 of local dollars spent on juvenile justice is attributable to childhood lead poisoning.
Onondaga County District 18th District Legislator Monica Williams represents the South Side, which contains some of the poorest housing in the city. She attended a meeting on Aug. 11 at the Southwest Community Center at which the students presented their findings. Noting that her district is home to a large number of poor families, Williams said she is planning to look into the Rochester experience, and present her findings to the Legislature.
Statistics on lead poisoning show that the problem affects poor families and people of color disproportionately. In the 13204 and 13205 Zip codes on the city’s West and South sides, 12.3 percent of the children tested had elevated levels of lead. The 13204 Zip code has the second highest level of lead poisoning in New York state outside New York City; 13205 was third in the same measure.
Lane believes the city and the county are doing their best, but that a tougher law is needed. “The Onondaga County Health Department Lead Program does a very good job with the resources that they have,” she noted. “The Health Department staff and the city of Syracuse Lead Hazard Control Program go beyond what New York state law requires to try to protect children. But we need to strengthen the law to prevent children from being lead-poisoned in rental properties.”
The bottom line, according to Lane: “We need to stop using our babies as lead detectors.” The Syracuse Lead Task Force, one of the sponsors of the Aug. 11 meeting, is looking for new members. A meeting will be held at Huntington Family Services, 405 Gifford St., on Sept. 11 at 5:30 p.m.