Getting the lead out: Pair of Chin bills would combat lead-paint exposure

Holly Slayton and her daughter in a hallway of their East Village building, where lead-exposure readings have measured above the legal limit.
Photo courtesy Holly Slayton

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA

The City Council held a hearing on Thurs., Sept. 27, on 25 bills targeting the problem of lead exposure across the city, all part of an approach to reduce lead poisoning instances to zero.

But tucked into the hefty package of bills are two from City Councilwoman Margaret Chin targeting an issue that the drafters of an existing law, Local Law 1 of 2004, which was intended to eliminate lead poisoning by 2010, didn’t anticipate, especially in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. 

The source is lead-based paint construction dust in buildings where renovations can fill stairwells and even individual units with lead-filled dust. 

“The safe work practices in the context of landlords doing gut renovations or gut demos in unoccupied apartments, and how dust affects people in other apartments is a big loophole that Local Law 1 wasn’t really anticipating,” said Rachel Spector, the director of the Environmental Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “It was pre-massive-gentrification in New York.”

In one of the most egregious instances, lead exposure in the hallways was found to be as high as 2,750 times above the federal threshold at 102 Norfolk St., according to lead reports.

“It’s a new phenomenon that has increased as landlords see a lot of opportunity to kick out longstanding tenants in older buildings and raise the rents,” Spector said. 

One of Chin’s bills would target interagency coordination between the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Department of Buildings. 

“For advocates or our office, we have to separately reach out to each agency and try to get them to all work together to alleviate the dangerous situation,” said Chin.

Chin’s bill would require HPD and DOH to tell DOB if there is a violation of lead-paint hazard laws. The law would go further, also giving DOB the authority to issue a stop-work order with that information on violations from the other departments. 

The goal, the councilwoman said, is to increase how closely the agencies work together and help them be more proactive on preventing and limiting lead exposure — rather than addressing exposure long after residents have been breathing in lead dust for weeks. 

One East Village resident, Christine Rucci, spent months with various symptoms while a neighboring unit was undergoing renovation. Her son developed asthma, too, which Rucci attributes to the dust to which they were exposed.

“My son and I spent a year consistently sick with unexplained symptoms,” she said in her testimony. 

She developed rashes and her pet rabbit died, added Rucci, who has joined a new coalition called Lead Dust Free New York City, which includes the East Village’s Cooper Square Committee.

Rucci said HPD and DOH inspected her apartment over a five-month period, and that with the new legislation, she hopes agencies will streamline communication. 

Other aspects of the bill include allowing lead violations to be considered when weighing whether a landlord should get after-hours construction permits and requiring landlords to disclose any complaints or violations about lead in the past two years when applying for construction permits. 

The latter would be a part of the already required tenant-protection plan. However, at the Sept. 27 hearing, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson criticized the protection plans as being “self-certified” by landlords anyway, which often leads to misleading filings by bad-acting landlords. Landlords are also supposed to give a pre-notification to the Health Department about any construction that could result in lead paint hazards. But at the City Council hearing, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot couldn’t say exactly how many pre-notifications landlords file. 

“DOH has said they just get very, very few of these pre-notifications,” Spector said. “It’s 100 percent on the landlord to do it.” 

But Spector added, pointing to the coordination that could be possible, DOB does know when construction work is happening because landlords are required to file permits with that department. 

“DOB is in a better position to know, ‘Okay, work is happening,’” Spector said. Chin echoed this point to city officials from DOH, DOB and HPD at the hearing, who said they support the bill’s intent but want to continue working out the details. 

A second bill by Chin would directly prevent lead violations in the future, requiring building owners to abate all lead-based paint whenever someone moves out of a unit.

Currently, when an apartment is vacated, landlords are required to remediate lead-based paint hazards rather than removing the paint entirely in pre-1960 buildings. (New York City banned lead-based paint in 1960). 

“It’s the first time I think there’s been a proposal that may actually get passed like that,” offered Corey Stern, a law partner with Levy Konigsberg who represents around 175 children with blood lead levels in public housing. “Painting over paint is not a remediation of a lead hazard under any circumstances.

“When you paint over paint,” he explained, “all the paint adheres to the layers that were previously there, so as soon as there’s a paint chip that chips off of a wall that’s been freshly painted, it’s not just the fresh paint that chips off or becomes dust — it’s all the layers behind it.”

But critics of entirely removing the paint — including the landlord group the Rent Stabilization Association — warn the requirement would negatively impact affordable housing because of the costs to remove lead. DOH Commissioner Barbot echoed this concern.

“I think the issue here that was raised at the hearing was that they were concerned about the cost factor, whether that will have an effect on affordable housing,” Chin said. “But I think that’s something that we can look into. But it’s really a great safety measure to do it permanently, so you don’t have to be concerned about lead paint and lead chips afterwards.”

Barbot highlighted the drastic reduction of lead-poisoning incidents citywide since 2004. However, exposure from lead-based paint, which includes construction dust, still remains the main source of lead poisoning, according to the Department of Health. Other bills target lead in the soil and water, but the city and some advocates emphasize that the focus should remain on paint since it’s the greatest threat.

Since 2005, the city has achieved a 90-percent reduction of elevated blood-ead levels in children under age six. 

Yet, despite this progress, between 2010 and June 2018, more than 63,000 children under age 18 had blood lead levels above the federal standard of 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. 

At the hearing, Johnson slammed this persistent problem as a failure by the city. Last year alone, more than 4,200 children under 6-years-old had blood lead levels above the federal limit of 5 micrograms per deciliter — which would also be the city’s threshold under legislation sponsored by Johnson.

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