Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Residents, Advocates Raise Concerns About Lead Paint Dust Exposure When I-81 Viaduct Is Demolished

NYCLU Project Counsel Lanessa Chaplin of Syracuse says protecting the community from lead caused by the I-81 viaduct demolition is a "restorative justice issue."
Scott Willis
NYCLU Project Counsel Lanessa Chaplin of Syracuse says protecting the community from lead caused by the I-81 viaduct demolition is a "restorative justice movement." She and other advocates and community members are standing in front of Martin Luther King School. The highway is right behind it.

Syracuse-area health, safety, and parent advocates want the state DOT to ensure those living and attending school near the I-81 viaduct are properly protected from lead dust exposure when the bridge is torn down. They gathered in front of Martin Luther King school Wednesday, which lies in the shadow of the highway. Oceanna Fair with Families for Lead Freedom Now says many families in the area are already dealing with the long-term health effects of lead.

"Our concerns are that when they bring this bridge down, that lead paint will have far higher lead values than the paint that's already affecting children in their homes. We want to make sure that our community is not further harmed by the demolition of this bridge, that our families are protected, that the workers working on this bridge are protected."

Lead has been banned from residential paint for over 40 years, but Syracuse children continue to be poisoned at some of the highest rates in the state because of the city’s older housing stock and negligent landlords. Lead can still be used in bridge paint as an anti-corrosive. It’s not known how much lead is in the paint used on the I-81 viaduct, but Jeanette Zoeckler with the Occupational Health Clinical Center says it can be as much as 50 percent by weight. She says bridge demolition is the leading cause of lead poisoning among workers.

"The demolition work involves cutting through lead-coated metal structures, a process that generates high concentrations of lead fumes, and can present substantial risk for lead toxicity."

The advocates are calling for the DOT to go beyond what is required by law to protect families who’ve already ensured decades of health problems caused by pollution from I-81. Project Counsel with the NYCLU Lanessa Chaplin says it’s a racial justice issue.

"This community deserves more. There's a difference between what the regulations require and what quality of life requires. What we're demanding is these school children behind us, these community members who live here, deserve a higher quality of life."

Chaplin calls the 81 project and all that it entails a “restorative justice movement” aimed at remediating the past racist practices that rammed the highway through a poor, Black neighborhood.

The DOT has yet to formally issue a record of decision on the final design of the community grid that will replace the viaduct. The demolition of the viaduct will be the last phase of the project, which is at least a few years away. Improvements and widening of the current I-481 into what will be the future I-81 will come first, and could begin as soon as next year.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at