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What to understand about lead poisoning in Syracuse

The city of Syracuse has been fighting against lead poisoning for about half a century, and an issue that disproportionately affects people of color.

On the latest episode of Syracuse Speaks, WAER spoke with community leaders to better understand what the current fight against lead looks like:

  • Oceanna Fair, Southside Branch leader for Families for Lead Freedom Now
  • Dr. Travis Hobart, Medical Director of Central/Eastern NY Lead Poisoning Resource Center,
  • Keenan Lewis, City of Syracuse Lead Paint Program Coordinator
  • Jessica Vinciguerra, City of Syracuse Lead Program Administrator

Here's some of what we learned from the conversation:

1. New York State has specific guidelines for childhood lead testing.
Dr. Hobart said the state has set out specific timetables for when parents should have their children tested for elevated blood lead levels.

“In New York State, the requirements are that every child have a lead test done at age one, and again at age two,” Dr. Hobart said. “In addition, the doctor should be asking the family about any risk factors. So if that child lives in a home where there’s lead paint coming off the walls or another person in the family has lead exposure, then any child should be tested in any circumstance, but in particular, ages six months to six years are the highest risks.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers an elevated blood level of over 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in children is considered high lead exposure, but New York State's level of exposure is higher.

“New York State has not yet adopted the state guidelines of 3.5,” Dr. Hobart said. “So what New York State does is, when the level is five or above, is when the county health department goes into the home and inspects for lead.”

2. There are common misconceptions about the cause of lead poisoning in Syracuse.
Keenan Lewis said the educational piece of teaching tenants, property managers and communities about the signs of lead poisoning is a huge part of lead remediation work.

“There is still a big amount of individuals that believe the paint chips are the cause and not knowing that, to Oceanna’s point, ingestion, simple things like trying to get ventilation into your home, because you have a lack of air and proper ventilation and screens and things of that nature when you’re talking about how the home is designed,” Lewis said.

Lewis also said lead can be just one of several issues for renters or homeowners that may not always be an instant priority.

“There are a lot of issues that are in front of a tenant when it comes to their residence; that lead is probably the fifth or sixth thing down the line,” Lewis said.

3. A version of a lead testing bus is set to return.
Through her organization Families for Lead Freedom Now, Fair said she and her team have been working to bring back what they call the “lead bus.”

“We used to have the lead bus that literally drove down the neighborhoods, knocked on doors and got kids tested,” Fair said. “So we are getting a version of that back that we count as a win with the county.”

Fair said the mobile unit will look a little different going forward.

“In my conversations with the County Health Department, what it will look like is that the unit will be able to show up at events that maybe organizations are holding,” Fair said. “They would have to pre-register the children with the county, but then we would be able to do testing on site.”

4. The city has purchased new technology to advance the fight against lead.
Lewis said he and those around him are performing lead inspections every day, and inspectors are hoping to use a new piece of technology soon to ensure properties are safe.

“XRF devices are these fancy expensive guns that detect the presence of lead within seconds,” Lewis said. “So you can hold one up to a home, in the interior of a home or the exterior of a home, any surface, any substrate, and it can read within seconds.”

Lewis said the city has devised a plan with the XRF devices.

“The city has purchased six of those devices,” Lewis said. “We are looking to put those in inspectors’ hands, so that’s coming in the near future. And this will help us be more proactive in regards to getting out and testing.”

5. There are still several barriers preventing progress in the fight against lead.
Lewis said he sees multiple barriers in Syracuse communities that can exacerbate the harm lead poisoning causes.

“Right now this community does not have a lot of wipe technicians, individuals who could do the dust wipe sampling,” Lewis said. “That was a huge barrier for us in the beginning stages of this process where we had one in the whole community, and now we’re up to about five or six. So now we’re moving and individuals are now becoming more certified.”

The price of samples, which owners and property managers have to be accountable for, is another obstacle, according to Lewis.

“Dust wipes can be up to $250 per unit,” Lewis said. “So if you got a property owner or property manager that has five units or more, two families, that can add up. So another barrier is individuals submitting to go get the dust wipes because they’re costly.”

Hear more from Lewis, Vinciguerra, Fair, and Hobart on the latest episode of Syracuse Speaks.

Matt Fairfax is an undergraduate student studying Broadcast & Digital Journalism at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, expected to graduate in May 2023.