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Reporter Debrief: Behind the Scenes on Lead Poisoning Reporting Series Collaboration

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Zoe? McCreary
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Over the past month, WAER worked in collaboration with The Stand and the Newhouse School of Communications on a series about Syracuse's lead-poisoning crisis.  Reporter Sydney Gold produced stories on families affected by lead poisoning, the health impacts, and the responses from government and non-profits.  Sydney shared more of what she learned reporting the story with WAER News Director Chris Bolt.  

Gold got interested in the story by reporting another story on infrastructure issues in Syracuse.  Lead Poisoning kept coming up, so she decided to dive into it.  When she started to talk to families who were impacted by lead poisoning, she found one woman whose siblings were impacted by lead, and now her grandchildren are also poisoned.

“It’s something that families are tackling generationally … and they really see it as an issue of tenants’ rights,” said Gold.

Most are renters, who are caught in the middle.

“A lot of time you’ve got landlords blaming the families; they’re saying it’s a housekeeping issue.  It’s not a housekeeping issue when I have chunks of paint peeling off my house.  That’s a homeowner issue,” said Oceana Fair, who was interviewed for the stories.

Gold found out it can cost $50,000 or more to fully remediate lead from a home, so it can be a financial strain, even if a landlord has good intentions.  She spoke with Paul Ciavarri with Legal Services of Central New York, who notes this points out the inequality between tenants and landlords.

“Tenants are often intimidated by their landlords.  I other cities, they have a private right of action to sue the landlords over remediating the house.  But our current ordinance doesn’t provide that.”  

Gold also found out more about some of the health impacts.  Syracuse University Falk School Public Health Professor Dr. Sandra Lane told her that lead poisoning can reduce executive function in the child’s brain, which has lingering impacts on the victim and on society.  She says early interventions can help in schools.

“Teacher who are trying to teach kids to read, I believe it would make sense to make a better learning plan for each of the children.  For example, because lead makes kids more distractible and makes it harder for them to pay attention, a child who has a history of lead poisoning could be put into smaller groups for reading,” Lane explained.

It can further lead to increased likelihood of bad decision making, criminal behavior, teen pregnancy and other community impact issues, she found.

Gold reported on the ordinance passed by the Syracuse Common Council in 2020.  She shares the biggest change made, as regards the tenants and what relief they might expect from lead poisoning.

“…making lead a code violation. That means if the city comes and inspects the home and finds lead I the house, they are able to site the house as having a violation.  Once the property is cited, the city has far and away more power to do something about the issue, than if they just see chipping paint or dust fragments (with lead).”

Gold’s entire story is published in the Stand … which can be accessed here.