Peeling Back the Layers on Lead Poisoning in the Mohawk Valley

Lead poisoning, the build-up of this toxic element in the body, results from breathing in or swallowing even microscopic amounts of the neurotoxin.

Children under age 6 are especially susceptible to these negative effects because these are critically formative years for neurologic development with potential consequences ranging from learning difficulties and irritability to growth delays and behavioral problems.

Lead hazards are common in deteriorated painted surfaces—interior and exterior—as well as associated dust residue and contaminated soil or water, all of which may be found in homes and buildings built before 1978, when the federal government banned the use of most lead-based paint.

The burden of lead poisoning hits particularly close to home in our area. Oneida County has one of the highest levels of childhood lead poisoning in New York state, and Herkimer County levels are double the state average.

The City of Utica’s incidence rate of elevated levels of lead in children’s blood is greater now than Flint, Michigan’s at the time of its well-known lead-related water crisis in 2015. Unlike in Flint, our region’s primary source for lead exposure in children stems from deteriorated paint in an aging housing stock.

Despite a state law requiring early childhood testing for lead exposure, approximately one-third of children in the two counties have not had the required blood tests. While testing rates are on the rise, greater collaboration is the key in getting to the roots of the societal problem.

In 2016, The Community Foundation partnered with more than two dozen organizations to launch the Lead-Free Mohawk Valley (LFMV) coalition with an initial $1 million investment. In 2018, The Community Foundation reaffirmed its commitment with an additional $5 million investment over the next decade to focus on the reduction of lead hazards and to expand testing and community awareness of the problem.

“The coalition model has proven to be successful because it allows us to bring together a wide variety of agencies, people and initiatives, helping to create more impactful partnerships,” said Alicia Dicks, president/CEO of The Community Foundation. “As a collective, we’ve been able to leverage the effectiveness of each partner’s current strategies and identify opportunities that will allow for even greater outcomes.”

Today, the coalition consists of more than 100 individuals from more than 40 organizations representing public health, government, law, insurance, healthcare, education, childcare, housing, construction and support services. With LFMV already securing an additional $7.5 million in funding from state and federal agencies and private foundations, the coalition’s efforts are truly just beginning.

In 2018, the City of Utica was awarded a $3.5 million U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) grant to help address lead and home health hazards in 180 housing units for low-income families.

To more effectively implement the HUD grant, LFMV partners signed a compact with the Green & healthy homes Initiative (GhhI) to establish Utica-Oneida County as one of 28 designated GhhI sites in the nation. GhhI helps communities provide integrated home interventions to address health, safety, lead hazard, energy efficiency and weatherization concerns in eligible housing.

“The GhhI platform is helping local communities across the country deliver integrated and coordinated health and housing services to low-income families that more efficiently and cost-effectively implements local and federally funded programs,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of GhhI. “Using the GhhI model, children are healthier, families have safer and more energy-efficient homes—and lower utility bills—and medical costs decline due to fewer housing-related health issues.”

Eliminating lead poisoning takes a strategic, collaborative and steadfast plan, a method that the LFMV coalition has embraced and taken to the next level. Although there is a great deal of work ahead, investments associated with this long-term effort will benefit future generations’ health, safety and quality of life.

“What we’re here to deliver are outcomes,” said Norton. “Outcomes for the child who will go to school and be healthy and ready to learn, the child who will compete in the classroom because they aren’t poisoned by lead and because they are sleeping through the night without asthma. Being able to change that statistic and make it an opportunity is incredible and it takes political will and leadership.”

With nearly 25,750 pre-1978 houses in Utica—91% of the city’s homes—remediating lead hazards in every home with potential contamination would cost at minimum $334 million based on early estimates. It’s clear that current funding is just the beginning to ensuring a lead-safe future for all community residents. Read on to learn about some of the projects the coalition works groups have been focused on to reduce childhood lead poisoning and how your support can leverage even greater outcomes.