Angel Ramirez didn’t know anything about lead — until inspectors found it in the three-unit dwelling he bought on Watson Place in Utica two years ago.
Ramirez, who has an infant and a toddler, has made a point of learning about it ever since. He started by taking classes on how to mitigate lead.
“That’s when I found out it’s something that causes brain damage that’s irreversible (in young children),” he said.
Ramirez has replaced the windows in his own family’s home and his two rental units. Because windows move, they tend to be one of the primary mechanisms by which lead dust spreads through a home. But his home still has a lead dust problem because his siding has lead paint. He could paint and seal the lead in, but he’s looking for funding to help him replace the siding instead.
“If we just paint the siding, we’re not getting rid of the lead,” he said.
In the meantime, he won’t rent his apartments to families with young children. And he and his wife keep cleaning their house to keep the lead dust from the siding away from their children.
County officials sounded the alarm in 2007 that Oneida County had the highest rate of children with elevated blood lead levels upstate, with the largest share of cases in Utica with its huge stock of older housing with peeling paint revealing older paint underneath. Lead paint was banned in 1978.
Since then, more children have been getting lead testing and fewer children have been testing positive for elevated blood lead levels in Oneida County than in 2007. The lower numbers are a sign that efforts by the Oneida County Health Department, other local agencies and, most recently, a coalition headed up by The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties are working.
“When the testing rate would go up, you would expect you’re going to identify more children with high rates, but the opposite is happening. … The prevention is absolutely working,” said Kathy Paciello, program coordinator for the lead poisoning prevention program at the county health department.
In 2007, 84 children had a blood lead level between 10 and 14 micrograms per deciliter and 49 had a level of 15 micrograms per deciliter or higher, Paciello said. Those numbers fell to 56 and 36 respectively by 2016, she said.
And the number of children monitored by the health department has fallen from almost 100 three or four years ago to 58 now, the result of fewer children with high lead levels and of the county’s ability to help kids and close cases faster, Paciello said.
But progress is not victory as long as some children still test high.
“This is a problem that took years to create and it will probably be an issue that we need to be diligent and conscientious about addressing for a number of years,” said Caroline Williams, project manager for strategic initiatives at the foundation.
One thing that has helped lead testing rates go up is point-of-care lead screening tests, which let children get tested and their parents get the results during a primary care visit. The Sister Rose Vincent Family Medicine Center of the Mohawk Valley Health System, in the heart of one of the city’s highest risk neighborhoods, has had one for about six months.
And with a grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, Herkimer HealthNet placed the finger-prick testing machines in one medical practice in Oneida County and three in Herkimer County this year. Plans call for four more units to be installed. State guidelines call for testing at age 1 and at age 2.
“There’s a lot of risk and getting the kids screened is important,” said Dr. Mark Warfel, a family doctor at the Sister Rose Vincent center.
In most cases, testing reveals a problem in time to allow lead mitigation in their homes or daycares, but before they have high enough levels to need chelation therapy to remove the lead from their blood, he said.
When a child’s lead level is high, the county health department responds, but the response varies depending on how high the level is. Possible reactions include screening the child’s home and other places the child spends time for lead hazards, doing abatement work and treating the child.
A number of other programs try to mitigate lead hazards in high-risk neighborhoods before children develop high blood lead levels. Not all cases, though, come from peeling paint and agencies in Utica also have been addressing lead in city soil through raised gardening beds and spreading awareness to the refugee community about hazards in some imported products, such as spices and dishes.
For many area residents, though, avoiding lead is tricky.
“To a large extent, money is a barrier,” said John Monaghan, the foundation’s director of strategic initiatives.
Families who rent struggle to find affordable housing that’s in good enough condition not to present a hazard, and people who own their own homes often can’t afford lead abatement, he said.
And on the community level, there needs to be more investment in properties in high-risk areas, he said.
“There’s so much that we’ll never make lead free,” Warfel said. “But if we can make it lead safe and continue to address that, that would be a big help.”
Lead prevention programs
Oneida County, the Lead-Free MV Coalition and other area agencies have taken a multi-pronged approach to preventing childhood lead poisoning and preventing further exposure in children who already have elevated blood lead levels. Here are some of the programs:
• The Primary Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, funded by the health department through Cornell Cooperative Extension, works to prevent lead problems by training landlords and contractors in lead mitigation and abatement, helping families replace windows and spreading awareness.
• The county’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program monitors children with high blood lead levels, working to mitigate lead hazards to which the child was exposed and to make sure the child gets treatment if necessary.
• The county’s Healthy Neighborhoods program, funded by a grant, works to make homes safer in one section of Rome, including lead prevention.
• The Utica Healthy Housing Pilot Project — offered through a partnership of several agencies in the coalition — is weatherizing 10 homes and making them lead safe. An application for more funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Renewal would, if granted, make 150 more homes lead safe over three years.
• The county health department will loan HEPA filter vacuums to residents doing work in their home to keep lead dust from being blown around by a normal vacuum cleaner.
Contact reporter Amy Neff Roth at 315-792-5166 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Roth).