The Lead Catastrophe in Utica

by Lana Nitti/Love and Rage

Two years ago I was sent a very interesting piece of investigative journalism from USA Today entitled, “Ghost Factories”. This article looked at the societal impacts of formerly unknown lead smelters throughout the United States. It also detailed ongoing and intentional failure on the part of government officials to address this known environmental health hazard.

Along with the article, there was a list of over four hundred smelters (ghost factories) that had not been examined. As I looked through the piles of source documents, I discovered that Utica had its very own ghost factory. When I pulled out the map and saw that it was located around the corner from the former downtown Washington Courts housing project I knew that there was more to the story. As I began finding out more about the smelter, and ultimately confirming that there was still lead present in the soil at the site of our city’s very own ghost factory, I became intimately aware of local public health issue of lead exposure.

While Utica may not be the largest city in the state of New York, it is a hot bed of childhood lead poisoning exhibiting the second highest rates of occurrence per capita for the entire state. Utica even outpaces New York City when it comes to childhood lead poisoning. Although health officials know the statistics locally and have developed effective methods for completely eliminating lead poisoning in the United States, the issue still persists. Lead poisoning is concentrated in impoverished communities that are often home to people of color. Dilapidated housing, absentee landlords and inadequate access to healthcare are the conditions that allow for lead poisoning to take hold of such vulnerable communities.

Maps developed by the Oneida County Health Department detail the distribution of lead poisoning throughout the city of Utica. It is here that one is able to see which neighborhoods, namely Cornhill (home to over 40 percent of Utica’s population) and West Utica, are feeling the most profound impact of this major public health issue that spells catastrophe for nearly one hundred children and their families each year in Utica.

Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal found just below the earth’s surface that is extremely toxic to humans. It is a non-corrosive metal, meaning that it does not rust or degrade, making its existence in our communities persistent. Although lead is found naturally in the environment, it becomes much more hazardous when it finds its way into the hands of humans for industrial purposes. There are many ways to come in contact with lead.

Because of its non-corrosive nature, lead was a popular choice for plumbing pipes well into the twentieth century. Lead can also be used to create vibrant paint pigments for the exteriors of homes, decorative dishware, toys and even make-up. All housing built before 1978 is deemed to be hazardous in terms of lead contamination as a result of the prevalence of lead-based paint and plumbing leading up to that time. Lead is essential in the production of car batteries, which are extremely hard to safely dispose of. Lead was incorporated into gasoline up until the 1990s, and then emitted from tail pipes and deposited in neighborhoods throughout the United Sates. The process for recycling lead, known as smelting, also emits dangerous amounts of lead particles into the environment. The city of Utica is known for its aging housing stock and industrial past, which likely inform its high instances of lead poisoning today.

There is an expectation amongst most Unites States citizens that our government system and elected officials are working to make our communities safe. The EPA was aware of the hundreds of uninvestigated former lead smelters across the country and chose to not to address this issue for nearly ten years. When communicating with the local refugee community about the health implications of lead exposure, the Oneida County Health Department does not use research-proven best practices for multicultural public health outreach.

Studies have shown that effective and meaningful sharing of vital information within multicultural communities must incorporate the voices of those they are trying to reach. Cultural values and points of reference need to be prominent features of public health outreach materials for them to be effective. Translating these materials from English to other languages is not enough. Many refugees are unable to read and write in their native tongues. Visual messages are more successful at reaching refugee communities.

Even more effective is verbal communications from their peers. Prominent members of the refugee community should be identified by Oneida County Health Department officials so that they can be brought into the dialogue and carry these important messages back to their peers in a collective effort to eliminate childhood lead poisoning within Utica. In Philadelphia, the city has formed a specialized court system to deal with lead poisoning cases where it is clear that unsafe housing is the cause. Before the creation of the Philadelphia Lead Court, if a child was found to have an elevated blood lead level that was related to unsafe housing conditions an order for remediation would be issued by a judge to the property owner, mostly likely a landlord. If they were unable or unwilling to comply, it would be the responsibility of the health department to take care of the job, without extra funding. Looking for better solutions and better outcomes, a variety of city officials got together and decided to make these court orders more enforceable through the use of fines and more oversight, a similar method to what is used by the specialized drug court in Utica. Philadelphia’s cooperative and effective approach to remediating lead hazards in homes would go a long way if put to work in Utica, even if it just boosted revenue and made our city safer for children.

Utica is nestled in Oneida County, one of the most impoverished areas of New York State. Poverty indicates increased instances of renting as opposed to home ownership, decreased access to quality healthcare and diets that are lacking in nutritional value. These three factors alone increase a child’s chance of becoming lead poisoned. However, the number one trait shared by children affected by lead poisoning is race, regardless of income level. Poor Black and Brown children are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels as their poor white counterparts. In New Jersey, where the childhood lead poisoning issue mirrors that of New York, prominent thinkers, such as Dr. Peter Simon the retired director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, have begun referring to it as a product of institutional racism.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers children with a blood lead level of ten μg/dL to be poisoned, they have recognized that effects of lead exposure begin to manifest at a blood lead level of five μg/dL. The CDC has asserted that no amount of lead exposure is safe for children. A child who has been exposed to lead will suffer in the aftermath for the rest of their life. Lead attacks the central nervous system stunting cognitive development. Children who are considered lead poisoned are at risk for a host of health issues including lowered IQs, delayed speech development, impaired fine motor skills, behavioral issues, ADHD, decreased organ function, seizures and even death.

While it is possible to lower a child’s blood lead level, it is impossible to repair the damage that has been done. Children who have been exposed to toxic levels of lead will most likely need special care throughout their lifetime and may find it difficult to maintain employment necessary for financial independence. It has been proven that primary lead prevention programs, although costly upfront, actually cost less than the care provided to a lead poisoned child over the course of their life.

Steps You Can Take
A sugar packet worth of lead is enough to contaminate an entire home. If you are concerned that you or your family may be currently exposed to lead there are things that you can do right now:

  • The federal government mandates that all children that are recipients of Medicaid are required to receive routine blood lead level tests up until the age of two. If your family uses Medicaid, make sure that your healthcare provider is aware of their responsibility in providing this life saving testing.
  • When drinking or cooking with water from the tap make sure that it always cold and allow it to run for at least thirty seconds before use. This is especially important when making formula for babies, as they absorb lead much quicker because of their small size.
  • If you live in an older home and the paint is peeling or chipping make sure that surfaces are wiped of dust with a wet cloth each day, especially windowsills.
  • Fans should not be placed in windows, as they encourage the spread of lead contaminated dust throughout the home.
  • Keep children’s’ hands as clean as possible and make people take their shoes off right away once coming inside.
  • If you rent an apartment and you are concerned about possible lead exposure educate yourself about lead exposure and local laws for landlords concerning lead contamination.
  • Share this knowledge with your neighbors in the common goal of having somewhere safe to live with your families. Put the pressure on your landlord to provide a healthy living environment that you pay for each month.
  • Utilize the local media and social networking to send the message to your landlord that you and the neighboring community will not accept toxic living environments. It is important to know your rights and demand that they be respected when it comes to ensuring the health of your family.

Lana Nitti is a Utica-based activist and student originally from New York City. Her organizing past and activity in the community go back several years and her original work on lead poisoning in Utica has been the subject of presentations at both the Mohawk Valley Freedom School and TEDx Utica.


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