Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon announced Monday the return of a lead testing van. Advocates have pushed for its return for three years. Credit: Chris Libonati | libonati@centralcurrent.org

After advocates called for the return of Onondaga County’s lead testing van, county officials said Monday the van is poised to return.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon and county health commissioner Kathryn Anderson said Monday the van would come back in the coming weeks.

McMahon included the van in the county’s 2023 budget, as part of $5 million the county dedicated to increasing the testing of children for lead poisoning.

Oceanna Fair, of Families for Lead Freedom Now, has advocated for the van’s return for about three years. Fair attended a press conference Monday for the announcement of the van’s return.

“We started advocating for this van three years ago and we had the county executive and county legislature actually tell us this was impossible, basically that we had a pipe dream, that we’re not bringing back the lead bus,” Fair said. “… We at Families for Lead Freedom Now kept up the advocacy, kept up the pressure, brought other partners in to apply that pressure. The result is what you’re seeing here today.”

Over the last decade, more than 1 in 10 children tested for lead poisoning in Syracuse has had elevated blood-lead levels. That’s at least in part because of the city’s aging housing stock.

Fair and McMahon both expressed hope that increasing testing would unveil the true scope of lead poisoning in the community. Many children don’t easily have access to testing, Fair said.

Restarting the lead testing van has been a popular idea in the community. Throughout 2022 and in early 2023, residents regularly proposed its return at Community Foundation forums that solicited ideas to increase lead testing.

McMahon and Anderson said the van will be staffed by Onondaga County health department officials and make stops at community events. A schedule of appearances for the van will be finalized and be available on the county’s website in the coming weeks, Anderson said.

City and county officials have been looking for ways to combat the lead crisis.

McMahon said Monday the county would also soon be hiring its director of lead operations, a position he announced would be created in his 2023 State of the County speech.

The city passed began enforcing an ordinance to help find homes with chipping lead paint in 2022, two years after it was passed by the Syracuse Common Council.

The ordinance allows the city’s Lead Hazard Reduction Office to inspect houses based on complaints by renters and property owners and to proactively check houses on the city’s rental registry. The city’s rental registry has a 50% compliance rate, which means many rental units are not able to be tested.

But Fair said the van is a good step toward understanding the depths of the lead problem in Syracuse.

“We are still just scratching the surface,” Fair said. “When we look at the fact that we poison approximately 600 children per year, that is of the children tested. They are not counting the children who we haven’t reached, we haven’t tested.”

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Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.