High lead poisoning rates among children in Syracuse target poor people of color

Syracuse's rate of lead poisoning among children is four times the national average.

There is a relationship between the city of Syracuse’s high rate of lead poisoning among children and its high concentration of poverty among African-Americans and Latinos, experts say.

In Onondaga County, around six percent of children tested have elevated blood lead (EBL) levels, which is above the approximately three percent of children diagnosed with lead poisoning nationally, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

“Obviously, we are never going to get to lead elimination at that pace. There’s just a lack of political will and resources to do it.”
- Wes Stewart

But in Syracuse, that number was doubled and continues to grow: 12 percent of children tested in the city have blood levels of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter or higher, at which The Center for Disease Control considers lead absorption to be lead poisoning.

While lead poisoning affects people of all demographics, it disproportionately targets impoverished people of color, said Sally Santangelo, the executive director of CNY Fair Housing. The Century Foundation, in their interpretation of data gathered from the U.S. Census, founded that, of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, Syracuse has the highest concentration of poverty among blacks and Hispanics.

Zip code matters

Children living in old and poorly maintained homes are most likely to be exposed to lead hazards. This is prevalent for low-income families because this type of housing is often the only option due to its low price, according to Debra Lewis, lead program coordinator for the Onondaga County Health Department.

“There are target zip codes that are at higher risk because of other socioeconomic conditions,” she said, such as higher percentage of rental properties in those areas, or the transient nature of people living in poverty who move from low rent property to low rent property.

Santangelo said this type of housing tends to be found in cities, in which impoverished people and people of color tend to live, largely because of decades of discriminatory housing policies in America’s recent history.

“Housing patterns are still largely shaped by the housing policies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and the white flight that occurred in the 60s and 70s, where people who could leave cities did,” Santangelo said.

Half of the homes in Syracuse were built before 1939, meaning that they likely contain lead paint, which was not banned from use in homes until 1978. When children live in these environments, it is extremely likely that they will absorb lead into their system via lead paint or lead dust, according to Wes Stewart, senior director of technical assistance at Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI).

Effects on children

Lead is toxic to people of all ages, but causes more detrimental problems in children. Jerry Paulson, a health consultant focused on environmental toxins’ effects on children, said that because a child’s brain is not yet fully developed, lead absorption disrupts the process of forming a fully functioning brain.

Most children with EBL do not manifest symptoms of lead poisoning. The signs that appear in children with relatively low blood lead levels include learning disabilities, speech development problems, hearing loss, ADHD and aggression. Among children with high blood lead levels, reduced motor control and balance, developmental disabilities, comas, convulsions, and even death are common.Small decreases in IQ often accompany lead poisoning among children.

To combat the lead hazards and other housing needs, GHHI recently began working in the city of Syracuse toward lead hazard reduction, weatherization, efficiency and healthy home based environmental health hazards. In Syracuse, most of their funding goes toward stabilizing or ridding homes of lead hazards. GHHI spends $110 million a year to address 3,000 to 5,000 housing units out of the 37 million homes with lead based paint in the United States.

“Obviously, we are never going to get to lead elimination at that pace,” Stewart said. “There’s just a lack of political will and resources to do it.”

Work ahead

Reducing lead poisoning is a matter of resources and policy. Stewart and Paulson both said in order to lower the percentage of children with EBL, preventative testing is a must. Rather than allowing already-poisoned children to be the trigger for testing, they believe that it is necessary to put in place a system to test homes for lead hazards before kids can take in lead.

This kind of policy change could have positive effects on low-income minorities, especially in Syracuse. Beyond the physical symptoms that wreak havoc on these communities, Santangelo also worries about the psychological effects that lead poisoning and substandard housing cause.

“As a parent, to have your children living in housing that you know is poisoning them but feeling like you don’t have a choice or a way to fix it…” Santangelo said, “And then you end up getting so focused on survival that it’s difficult to think about much else.”

The disproportionate exposure to lead for African Americans and Latinos will continue without more funding and attention paid to this issue.

“Lead poisoning has a dramatic and lifelong effect on children and our community as a whole,” Lewis said. “To prevent something as preventable as lead poisoning helps all of us.”



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