New York City upholds lead law

By a vote of 44-5, the New York City Council recently overturned Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto of lead legislation that has been debated for over a decade. The voice of the New York City Council was clear.

“Today we give the children in the row houses of our city the same health protection as those who live in the townhouses in Manhattan,” said Councilman Bill Perkins of Manhattan, the chief architect of the legislation.

For well over two decades, the city’s real estate interests have pressured New York City mayors to set aside medical and scientific studies that conclusively prove that children’s exposure to lead is a neurological and mortality threat. Lead paint chips on window sills are often eaten by small children. The smell and taste of the lead chips is sweet. The only way to remove this danger is to eliminate the lead paint itself.

Mayor Bloomberg openly condemns the council’s vote. City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, who on most issues has been a beacon of public health, has turned his head and supports the real estate interests. Both Bloomberg and Frieden mouth the cries of real estate ideologues that the new law is too complicated. “It cannot be enforced,” say Frieden and Bloomberg.

The legislation’s complexity is due to the intense lobbying by the real estate interests to make any law impossible to administer. Advocates of the NYC lead law, like advocates of federal ergonomic regulations, were compelled to make legislative adjustments to win over weaker legislators from the corporate arguments.

Lead poisoning affects everyone. Industrial lead poisoning affects both men’s and women’s reproductive functioning. Lead poisoning attacks the nervous system of growing children, in the worst cases resulting in permanent mental disability. The behavior of a lead-poisoned child presents an intense problem for parents, who agonize over their child’s disability and often feel guilt for not preventing the poisoning. Any program of lead removal must have a psychological component to help parents.

Each year at least 4,000 new lead poisoning victims are identified in New York City. According to the council, these victims come from the poorest communities. It is time to stop the filibustering of the law and enforce the law. The influence of political contributions from the real estate interests, who give money to both Republicans and Democrats, is profound. In this case, however, the almost totally Democratic Party-led City Council did the right thing.

The passage of the NYC Lead Law can become a catalyst for other cities across the country. A federal ban on lead paint in all homes is an important national goal.

It is expensive to implement a comprehensive lead paint prohibition law. It must include removal of the lead paint; a safe place for the residents to live while their home is being de-leaded; medical and mental health care for lead victims, including parents of lead-poisoned children. Federal support to complete this job is necessary.

Please e-mail this column (pww@pww.org) if you have local experiences that can be used to galvanize a national movement against lead poisoning.