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Steven Malanga
Lead Paint Malarkey
Though advocates still cry wolf, New York City has all but eliminated the lead poisoning scourge.
19 June 2002

The New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), a Naderite advocacy outfit, has just issued a report claiming that Gotham still faces a massive public health problem from lead paint in apartments and houses. Using some sloppy, back-of-the-envelope guestimates, NYPIRG claims that over the last six years 136,000 New York kids showed signs of lead poisoning.

It’s pure bunk.

The truth, as found in the Department of Health’s reports, is that lead paint poisoning has been falling sharply in the city—a good news story that the local press has all but ignored. With lead paint long ago outlawed, industrial pollution greatly reduced, and leaded gasoline—a big contributor to elevated lead levels—long off the market, the number of lead poisoning cases in the city has tracked steadily downward, even as the government keeps lowering the level of lead in the blood that it says constitutes poisoning. The number of Gotham children with lead levels in their blood above 20 micrograms per deciliter—the point at which the city begins to require doctors to start treating a child for potential poisoning—has fallen 65 percent in the last five years, to just 452 cases in 2001. Less serious cases, based on lower lead levels of ten micrograms, and requiring patient education and follow-up testing, have dropped even faster, from 14,406 cases in 1996 to 4,656 last year.

To put these numbers in context, note that the Centers for Disease Control say that serious health damage doesn’t occur until lead in the blood reaches concentrations four to six times higher than the city’s current action levels, while the average lead level of today’s American child is just 2.9 micrograms. Though some scientists have argued that any amount of lead in the blood will reduce a child’s IQ by several points, most scientific researchers who’ve looked at the problem observe that in the 1970s, when leaded gas was the norm, the average blood lead level for all American children was 25 micrograms—nearly ten times today’s average. If such a lead level really damaged intelligence or health, scientists point out, half of all adults in America today would be walking around with severe impairments.

The NYPIRG study—though this is far from its intent—actually underscores this success in reducing lead poisoning. The great majority of the children it claims are suffering from “lead poisoning” fall into the lowest government classification—not children who require treatment, but those who require only follow-up testing. And these kids have significantly lower lead levels than the average American child did 25 years ago. “Kids who test at these lower levels should not be termed ‘lead poisoned,’” says Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of the American Council on Health and Science. “‘Poisoning’ is a loaded word that takes this discussion out of the realm of the scientific.”

What’s more, growing evidence suggests that a significant percentage of those few children who have potentially serious lead poisoning are immigrant kids from poor countries, who seem to suffer disproportionately from high lead levels in their blood. One recent study found that 11 percent of all immigrant and refugee kids who arrived in Massachusetts from developing countries from 1995 through 1999 had elevated lead levels—a much higher percentage than among American children. And a preliminary investigation of New York kids with elevated lead levels shows that a high proportion of them are immigrants or frequent travelers to Third World countries. Many of these children lived in apartments with no lead paint violations, the investigation found.

Just as NYPIRG’s description of the problem is hysterically overwrought, so is its proposed solution. It recommends replacing the city’s Giuliani-era lead paint law—passed in 1998 over the objections of a host of advocacy groups—with a much tougher law, now proposed in the City Council, that would force landlords and homeowners to remove lead paint wherever it is found, even in places where it isn’t exposed or chipping. This is a very costly solution and one that won’t help the immigrant children, who need treatment for the lead poisoning they contracted in their native lands. More important, many public health experts believe that greater harm would probably result from trying to remove the paint, and thus sending lead particles into the air, than from containing it by leaving it in place and painting over it.

NYPIRG doubtless has another agenda in pushing for the new law, judging from its past history. Like most Nader-inspired groups, NYPIRG hews to an agenda set by trial lawyers, who once made a fat bundle off suing landlords (including the biggest landlord of all, New York City) for causing lead poisoning in children who ingested flaking lead-based paint on their premises. With serious cases of lead poisoning becoming vanishingly rare, however, such lawsuits have dried up. The new law would remedy this lack. It would set off a new wave of lawsuits, because it removes from parents any obligation to inform landlords if a child is living in an apartment or if the apartment’s paint is chipping, so that the landlord can inspect for lead. Consequently, if the parents of a child who developed lead poisoning before arriving in the U.S. want to sue their New York landlord and can show that there is lead paint in their apartment, the landlord will be pronounced guilty of causing the poisoning.

What’s really poisonous in New York these days is not lead paint but the atmosphere created by “studies” like NYPIRG’s.

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More by Steven Malanga:
The Cost of New York
A Tale of Two Scandals
Borrowing Trouble
More . . .
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