Paint peels off an I-81 viaduct. Credit: Michael Greenlar | Central Current

New construction and renovation projects in Syracuse remain a concern for advocates fighting to contain and mitigate the threat of lead poisoning, especially as huge building projects like the Micron plant and the restructuring of Interstate 81 loom. 

Childhood lead poisoning is already a major public health crisis in the city, with more than one in every 10 children tested showing elevated blood lead levels. The problem could be exacerbated as local officials plan new housing projects that require renovation or demolition of the city’s aging housing stock to accommodate for potential housing demands brought on by the arrival of Micron and converging issues of housing disrepair across the city.

The city’s older housing stock has the potential to pose a lead poisoning hazard. A report from Home Headquarters shows about 91% of the city’s housing was built prior to 1980, right around the time the state and federal governments banned the use of lead paint.

Public health advocates say they worry about any potential lead repair, renovation, or painting projects for properties across the state, as New York is one of the few states that does not enforce federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on said projects.

These guidelines are known as the EPA RRP rule, and advocates say they are the standard to safely remove and abate the presence of lead dust and lead paint, as well as safely contain any potential spillover to other adjacent properties.

Bobbi Wilding, the executive director of the environmental health advocacy group Clean and Healthy New York, said the risk of lead poisoning typically increases when the surface of a wall is disturbed. A 2020 report from the Community Foundation of Buffalo attributes anywhere from 14 to 40% of lead poisoning cases in the state to exposure during a recent home renovation or lead abatement projects. 

“We are more likely to create paint chips and create paint dust with lead in it,” Wilding said. “It is essential that contractors know how to treat this so that they aren’t exposed and so that they don’t poison the children the renovation is supposed to protect.”

Wilding added that not being prepared to remediate lead paint and dust could also pose a grave risk to the families of contractors. 

“Workers who are not using these procedures can bring lead dust home to their own families and poison their own children through their occupational exposures,” she said.

The World Health Organization deems lead a neurotoxin in children, noting that the chemical element attacks the brain and the central nervous system at high levels of exposure. This can lead to convulsions and even death, with other long-term effects such as intellectual disabilities and behavioral disorders.

RRP Rules and Enforcement

It is unclear why New York has not adopted federal RRP regulations, which the EPA has prescribed since at least 2008. Enforcement has fallen on the hands of the EPA, which advocates and state lawmakers say has consistently failed to bring adequate resources to ensure compliance during RRP work. A report from 2019 issued by the EPA Office of Inspector General declared the federal agency is not effectively implementing the regulations due to a lack of resources, clear guidance on how to implement oversight on RRP work, and no coordination among its dedicated offices. 

The report indicates there are four EPA inspectors overseeing RRP compliance in EPA “region 2,” which includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

A bill in the State Legislature could move New York to enforce RRP rules. Bill S6554, which is still in committee, would have the state conduct training, certification and enforcement of the state regulations. It would also require contractors to use dust wipe clearance tests once remediation work is done. The Community Foundation of Buffalo’s report estimates the bill could protect about 140,000 children 6-years-old and younger every year.

EPA RRP certification is about $186 per person and is offered by private companies. Contractors take eight hours worth of safe lead removal courses and the certification is valid for five years. 

Sonal Jessel, the director of policy at We Act For Environmental Justice, said certification is particularly important because the amount of lead dust it takes for children to show elevated levels of lead in their blood is about the size of a sugar packet. One of the EPA-certified techniques Jessel said she has observed requires contractors to cover the walls in plastic to ensure lead dust is contained.

“I don’t think learning how to perform lead-safe work is extremely complicated,” she said. “But it does take training.”

Moving New York to enforce RRP rules would unlock federal and state funding to fund certification as well as lead inspections performed by contractors, Jessel said.

For Wilding, the bill is an essential tool to fight lead poisoning in New York, particularly when enforced alongside legislation in the state budget that directs the Department of Health to create a rental registry of properties that could pose a lead poisoning hazard in the next two years.

“We do not want to see that we inadvertently allow contractors or landlords who are improperly trained to actually make the problem worse,” Wilding noted. “That is a nightmare that no one wants.”

Last year, city officials told Central Current there aren’t enough EPA-certified contractors to keep up with the number of properties that need lead remediation work. That point was recently reiterated by city officials during a radio segment on WAER.

Interstate 81

The nebulous state of enforcement of lead-safe regulations in construction projects is also a source of concern for advocates regarding the Interstate-81 replacement project, which is set to occur over the course of the next decade. 

Although the project is currently on hold due to a lawsuit regarding the transit solution that will replace I-81, the prospect of lead dust dispersing across an underprivileged area of Syracuse as the result of the demolition of the aging highway’s viaduct could haunt an already-wronged population for the foreseeable future.

“I think calling it a concern is an understatement,” said Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, the director of the Environmental Justice Project for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Who is going to enforce and ensure that these protections are actually happening? But also, are those protections actually enough when we’re talking about a community that lives so close to the viaduct and who have already been historically exposed to lead and other air pollutants?”

Owens-Chaplin said the RRP bill in the State Legislature is a great first step in ensuring residents are protected.

“But, again, who is going to be on the ground, making sure that these proactive measures are happening?” she said. “And also, when or if things don’t go as planned, who is going to be there and make sure that lead hazards are remediated as quickly as possible?”

Local advocates have cited research from St. Louis that showed lead and dust from demolition can travel 1.5 miles from the demolition site.

Owens-Chaplin and NYCLU have proposed measures such as establishing a State Department of Transportation field office in the vicinity of the viaduct to conduct outreach, as well as a health needs assessment to track blood lead levels. 

In response to an inquiry regarding the environmental regulations that will be enforced during the demolition and replacement of the viaduct, a DOT spokesperson said the department will abide by applicable state and federal regulations pertaining to the removal of lead, but noted the department does not comment on pending legislation.

Based on the department’s environmental plan for the I-81 project, contractors would have to prepare and submit a lead-exposure control plan to DOT for approval. Said plan requires an outline of the practices and measures that would be implemented to ensure NYSDOT safety and health of employees who may be exposed to lead during construction work based on standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

Local leaders, Owens-Chaplin said, would be key in the event that the state and federal agencies abdicate responsibility over public health hazards during the construction of the project 

“They should be fighting for us and advocating for our protection, especially when it comes to environmental protections,” she said. “They have to be accountable, diligent and proactive, making sure that this happens in a way that’s going to actually benefit the community.”

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