By Mary Frost and David Brand
Queens Daily Eagle
A recent lawsuit brought by the US Attorney of the Southern District was settled with a slap on the wrist and NYCHA, the sprawling housing agency promising to do better next time.
Meanwhile, children in an untold number of Queens NYCHA units may well be exposed to lead, which can lead to slurred speech, learning disabilities and slowed development.
Shockingly, the city tried to cover up the problem for years, failing to inspect apartments and falsifying paperwork.
The city said 820 children under 6 have tested positive for toxic leads level, in contrast with an earlier estimate of 19 — but the city Department of Health (DOH) has only been able to investigate a fraction of the potential cases. After periodic cleanups, NYCHA now estimates 55,000 of its 172,000 apartments likely have lead paint.
A map created by the Daily News in December 2017 plotted lead paint in at least 183 units in Queens NYCHA developments, but children in many more of the borough’s NYCHA units are likely at risk, said Ellie Hecht, the Director of At-Risk Community Services. Hecht’s organization advocates for the rights of public housing residents and worked closely with the Citywide Council of Presidents, a tenants’ rights group comprised of tenant representatives from various NYCHA developments.
There is currently no accurate and complete data available about the number of Queens NYCHA apartments contaminated with toxic lead paint, Hecht said.
“If you ask what NYCHA sites in Queens might have lead paint, I would say all of them,” Hecht told the Queens Daily Eagle. “[NYCHA] has has been systematically lying about lead paint and lead paint levels for years and I don’t know if there’s any data that can be trusted at this point.”
“NYCHA has been on record for not doing site inspections for lead for years,” Hecht continued “It’s almost impossible to unravel.”
In April, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Carol Edmead issued an order mandating that NYCHA inspect thousands of additional apartments for lead contamination within 90 days.
Edmead instructed NYCHA to release the results in July and condemned the authority for trying to cover up the problem for years, failing to inspect apartments and falsifying paperwork.
“In a startling display of sophistry, NYCHA posits that it can be trusted to expeditiously complete the requisite inspections and remediations,” Edmead wrote. “This rings hollow in light of NYCHA’s record of making false statements about its compliance with lead paint inspection requirements.”
According to the lawsuit, DOH’s information is incomplete “because it is based solely on reports from medical professionals who have tested children for lead, and does not include the many children living at NYCHA who have not been tested.”
In addition, the lawsuit also disclosed that lead paint is present in roughly thirty percent of NYCHA’s apartments.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer said he also plans to investigate the lead poisoning crisis.
“It is horrifying that the Department of Health kept this information under wraps and it is outrageous that the city continues to justify and minimize this scandal,” Stringer said in a statement.
Housing Projects Spread Across Queens
NYCHA housing projects are evident throughout Queens. There are 21 developments in the borough, including Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses — the largest public housing development in North America — and a 20-tower complex in Woodside. Combined, the 21 developments contain 15,716 apartments.
At the Pomonok Houses in Fresh Meadows, children have already tested positive for elevated lead levels, factoring in to the city’s 820-child estimate. The December 2017 Daily News map — completed months before evidence of a more expansive lead paint crisis emerged— cites 76 instances of lead-contaminated paint in Ravenswood Houses and 26 instances in the Woodside Houses.
According to the lawsuit brought by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, NYCHA has identified lead paint in the following NYCHA developments: Woodside, South Jamaica II, Rehab Program in College Point, Ravenswood, Queensbridge North, Pomonok, Hammel, Bland and Astoria.
Meanwhile, NYCHA has determined that at least 12,000 of its Brooklyn apartments may contain lead paint, the lawsuit states.
In a May 2016 email, a NYCHA executive advised that “there [were] only 33 paint[ers]/paint supervisors trained in lead safe practices” working in Brooklyn developments, according to the lawsuit.
De Blasio: Lead Cases Down Over the Years
As a result of the lawsuit, the city has agreed to a monitor of NYCHA.
In an interview on NY1 on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city has reduced the amount of elevated lead levels in kids across the city, “by about 90 percent in just about a decade.”
“What used to be tens of thousands of cases a year is now a few thousand cases a year,” he said, adding that cases involving children in NYCHA apartment are “an absolute minority of the cases.”
De Blasio said lead mitigation efforts will prioritize children age 6 and under.
“We’re going to send inspectors out to inspect that home, again whether public or private, and to make sure there is remediation,” de Blasio said. “We’re also going to track each child through our Department of Health and Health and Hospitals to make sure they’re getting the care they need.”
A investigation into lead poisoning by Reuters last November found that 5,400 children tested citywide had elevated blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher in 2015. DOH began using the CDC’s lower 5 microgram lead standard in January while the city was reaching a settlement with the federal government, as opposed to an older 10 microgram cut off.
Lead on the Tracks
In addition to lead, inside their apartments, Queens residents have also encountered lead paint coating some subway stations. The aging paint chips off the structures and falls to the ground, where it comes in contact with community residents, including young children.
In May 2017, a group of Queens residents filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority alleging that the MTA has no addressed elevated lead levels in the paint chips peeling off 7-Train Platforms.
“It is our hope that this lawsuit will fix this situation immediately and prevent any more people from getting harmed by toxic lead paint,” plaintiff Dudley Stewart, a co-op apartment owner living a few hundred feet from the 7-train tracks, told the Daily News.
On June 19, the NYC Transit Department announced a two-year, $43 million project to remove lead paint along the 7 line, beginning at the 82nd Street stations and continuing toward Mets-Willet Point. The project was prompted by a 2017 report from the District Council 9 International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which analyzed the toxic lead levels in paint chips flaking off the elevated tracks, the Queens Chronicle reported.
“I’m surprised that it hasn’t fallen down yet. It’s rusted. Paint is falling down off of it,” City Council Member Daniel Dromm told CBS2. “They found that the chips that are falling off of that trestle are 44 times greater than acceptable levels of lead paint poisoning.”
At a June press conference U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D – Queens) said removing the paint would also enable Transit to diagnose deeper problems.
“It’s more than just painting,” Crowley said. “When you’re painting this line, you see the structural issues up close. You can’t just simply paint over old paint or bad concrete.”