When a sandblasting crew on the Williamsburg Bridge rained down potentially hazardous lead paint chips last June, it set off a citywide scare.
In a separate incident in September, a boy who suffered from chronic asthma came home sick from Public School 3 in Greenwich Village. When his mother discovered that the school’s renovation work involved sanding away old lead paint, concerned parents forced the Board of Education to close the school while the danger was assessed. Elsewhere, parents and lawmakers are calling for the demolition of P.S. 92 in Corona, Queens, because its paint contains lead, and an emergency cleanup was undertaken one weekend at P.S. 2 in Jackson Heights.
Lead was once widely used in plumbing and paint, but its use has been reduced since its hazards became known. In large quantities, lead can cause brain damage or death. In smaller amounts it poses a risk for children. Lead is not naturally flushed out of the body as most toxins are: It is absorbed in the bloodstream and can be stored in bones for years. Children are particularly vulnerable to its effects because their brains and nervous systems are still developing and because they have a propensity to put foreign objects, like dirt or paint chips, in their mouths. Adults, on the other hand, face virtually no risk from everyday exposure to lead.
The actual amount of lead in the environment has been steadily decreasing for decades. Lead has not been widely used in paint or in children’s toys since the mid-1960s. All new cars have used unleaded gasoline since the 1970s, and leaded gas was taken off the market altogether in the 1980s. Between 1961 and 1991, the average amount of lead measured in children’s blood has declined from 19 to 6 micrograms per deciliter. The proportion of children with lead levels higher than 25 micrograms per deciliter—which until October 1991 had been considered the maximum safe level by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—is well under 1 percent.
The CDC has lowered its lead standard from 25 to 10 micrograms per deciliter; two studies found evidence that lead is hazardous to children even at such low levels. Both studies arc inconclusive, however. The first was conducted in 1979 by Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a strong advocate of lead abatement “whatever the cost.” Needleman found that even at low levels, lead exposure leads to learning disabilities and lower IQ scores. But some scientists have raised questions about Needleman’s methodology. For one thing, he failed to account for “confounding variables” that influence IQ scores, such as age, socioeconomic status, and family structure.
A more rigorous study published in 1992 in The New England Journal of Medicine found that low-level lead exposure is correlated with lower IQ scores, even after adjusting for socioeconomic variables. But it included this caveat: “The results indicate that the deleterious effects of environmental lead are not large, and that only a small fraction of the overall variation in IQ can be attributed to lead exposure.”
Indeed, it seems obvious, as lead-abatement critic Fred Smith argues, that factors such as crime, drugs, malnutrition, and the breakdown of the family have far more significant detrimental effects on academic performance than lead exposure does. If this were not the case, one would expect academic performance to have risen substantially during the last three decades.
None of this is to suggest that lead is not a serious problem, particularly in New York—a city where some 80 percent of the public schools and 40 percent of the housing stock were built before 1940, when lead was common in both paint and plumbing. But it is important that policymakers realistically evaluate the risks of lead and target their efforts where really needed. The lead from the Williamsburg Bridge, for example, turns out to have fallen mainly into industrial areas of Brooklyn, where there is little chance of children being exposed to it. At P.S. 3, none of the 34 five- and six-year-olds tested by the City Department of Health showed dangerous lead levels, although one child was near the threshold and has been recommended for continued monitoring. “The risk was theoretical, not a reality,” says Dr. Elihu Sussman, a private physician who treats many P.S. 3 children. The school was reopened after a few weeks, and kids returned to class, some wearing black T-shirts that read: “100% lead-free. I survived P.S. 3—1992.”
Unfortunately, regulators in both Washington and Albany will likely embrace a lead-abatement policy that is both costly and ineffective. Federal and state laws authorize regulations requiring houses and apartments to be inspected for lead, at a cost now estimated at $375 per unit, whenever they are sold or leased. If lead is found, it would have to be abated, at a cost ranging from $5,500 to $12,000 per dwelling. In New York City, where many low-income apartment buildings are already on shaky financial footing, such an additional expense could drive up the rate of abandonment, costing the city millions of dollars in expenses and forgone property taxes.
This approach is not only prohibitively expensive for many small landlords; it also would take a generation to remove the lead. Many families stay in the same home for a generation—particularly in New York City, where rent regulation offers a strong incentive to stay put—and lead abatement would not take place until they move.
A more sensible approach would be to offer targeted tax credits to property owners whose units pose the greatest risk—that is, the owners of dwellings with lead paint or plumbing that house families with children.
In public facilities such as schools and housing projects, the city should abate lead where necessary. But removing lead-based paint does not always make sense: It is costly and could increase health risks. “The evidence is overwhelming that poor deleading can actually worsen contamination,” according to Stephanie Pollack of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Lead Poisoning Project. A better method is “encapsulation “—sealing in the lead, usually by painting over it.
The city has already all but eliminated the risk of lead exposure from plumbing by adding a chemical known as blended orthophosphate to New York’s water supply. The chemical creates a microscopically thin coating over the inner surface of pipes, preventing lead from seeping into the water.
Another important step the city could take would be to increase its participation in the school breakfast and lunch programs. Malnutrition exacerbates the risk of lead exposure: If a child’s diet is deficient in calcium, iron, or zinc, the body will absorb lead at an accelerated pace. (Poor nutrition is correlated with low academic performance for other reasons as well, so improvements would be a cost-effective way of helping children.)
City officials estimate that there are at least 240,000 apartments with peeling lead paint that are home to small children. Under the regulations currently being proposed, cleanup would cost the city and landlords at least $2.9 billion. If authorities construe lead-abatement rules broadly, that amount could easily escalate to $7 billion—nearly one-fourth of the city’s total annual budget. By taking the modest steps suggested here, the city could dramatically reduce the dangers of lead, and do so without busting its budget or further endangering the low-income housing stock.