Public awareness about the dangers of lead poisoning has been especially elevated this year in light of Flint, Michigan’s shocking drinking water lead contamination scandal. Federal prosecutors are now taking a closer look into the circumstances related to reports of elevated blood lead levels in residents of New York City’s public housing and homeless shelters, as part of an investigation into allegations of poor environmental health and safety conditions. Investigators are seeking to determine whether the agencies managing those facilities manipulated reports in order to get money from federal housing agencies.
The presence of lead in public housing properties and homeless shelters in NYC is not a surprise considering that many of the buildings date back to the 1930s and 1940s when lead paint was still very common. The trouble is, there are a lot of other things wrong with these buildings as well. The New York Times reports that 63 percent of public housing residents in a door-to-door survey complained about damage and problems with electrical wiring, mold and peeling paint. That survey was backed by State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, a Democrat from the Bronx and Westchester County, and Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from the Bronx, who chairs the City Council’s Public Housing Committee. Survey takers also took photos of many examples of health and safety violations as evidence of the claims.
NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is accused of filing “possible false claims” to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is a major source of funds for the city’s Housing Authority (NYCHA). It’s a well known fact among public officials and residents that NYCHA has struggled to keep up with a backlog of work orders, including those related to lead paint removal, which the agency claims is due to a lack of funding. Court documents indicate that NYCHA is required by federal law to keep public housing dwellings “decent, safe, sanitary and in good repair,” which includes adhering to federal regulations for lead paint. In an effort to determine to what extent the agency has failed to meet those requirements, prosecutors have demanded documentation of blood lead level testing, including lists of addresses with affected residents, dates and results of environmental investigations, and dates and results of repairs or remediation to improve the problems. Investigators are looking to find out whether the agency’s numbers line up with other data collected during the inquiry, to reveal whether or not NYCHA falsified reports to the federal government.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed $300 million over three years for roof repairs in public housing developments, which will help remediate problems like moisture and mold, and a judge has appointed a monitor to oversee those repairs. The results of this lawsuit will help determine how to address other problems with the health and safety conditions in public housing and homeless shelters throughout the city.