You don’t have to be an environmentalist to be sickened by the wrenching images of oil-covered wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, and wonder at the corporate insanity that could allow such an insidious, toxic substance into our environment where we may be decades trying to cope with the effects. This crisis, compressed in time and made heartrenderingly visible by a satanically foul substance, provides an almost too-frightening object lesson for our own out-of-sight, and too-much-out-of-mind environmental bête noire: when it comes to lead poisoning–sadly–we are the Gulf of Mexico. And have been for decades.
As I wrote here a year ago:
It’s both shocking and heartbreaking that fully one third of all lead poisoning cases reported in 2006 in New York (outside of New York City) were from six zip codes in Buffalo. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, reread it. Those six zip codes are: 14207, 14208, 14211, 14212, 14213, and 14215.
With environmental lead, you can’t see it, smell it, taste it, or wash it out with detergent. Research shows that, once ingested, it causes permanent and irreversible damage to the developing brain and central nervous system, seriously undermining a child’s ability to learn, and possibly leading to violent behavior later in life.
David Hahn-Baker, of the Community Action Organization, is a veteran stalker of this invisible environmental monster. “New York State has oldest housing stock in the nation, and Buffalo has the oldest housing stock in the state. We’re ground zero for this problem.”
David told me that this week, on a residential street just a few blocks from UB South Campus, in one of those zip codes, 14215. There the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo gathered its Wipe Out Lead coalition partners for a one-year update on the effort–and some promising announcements. Despite a seemingly overwhelming task (akin to the feelings environmental responders in the Gulf are reporting as they confront seemingly endless coastal fouling), and a recessionary economy, the coalition has put some solid numbers on the board and added some star players to the team in its first year. One of these players, Western New York AmeriCorps, was a key presence at this week’s announcement. Its crew of specialists in lead-safe practices provided the backdrop for the event, working on painting the exterior of a lovely, 1920’s-era craftsman-style house–on a lovely, tree-lined street a block east of Bailey Avenue.
Having recently refurbished a historic theater in South Buffalo as its new headquarters, WNY AmeriCorps in the few short months since its move into Buffalo has reached out to create partnerships in a number of key areas of need in its new hometown. “The Wipe Out Lead project is a great marriage of two goals for our area: creating safe environments for our children and breathing new life into transitional neighborhoods,” said Mark Lazzara, CEO. “The homes will not only look great and instill pride in the community, but they’ll also ensure a safe environment for local families.”
Brandon Barry, in charge of the AmeriCorps crew working on the house, told me that they currently have 15 associates trained in lead-safe practices at work on projects, and he sees plenty of room for growth. “It’s going to take a while, a lot of people, and a lot of training” to get ramped up to where they want to be, he told me.
What’s been done in the last year? So far, 650 children have received lead testing through the program, and 100 homes have been made lead-safe. Although there is a long way to go at that pace, Alphonso O’Neil-White, President and CEO of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of WNY, is looking to double those results with the new partnerships, and affirmed that the end-goal remains the entire eradication of “this entirely preventable health menace.” “The effort is getting deeper and wider,” Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, Executive Director of the Community Foundation told me.
The training in lead-safe practices will be especially crucial going forward, given the new EPA standards that took effect in late April. Organizations that rehab old houses, for example, will have to take proper precautions and get their work crews properly trained when working with old lead-based paint, so that lead paint chips don’t get spread around within a house or a neighborhood. That might seem like a burden, but it’s all for the best, Clotilde told me. Given the insidiousness of lead poisoning, “it’s important that we don’t make that problem worse in trying to solve another.”
The effort will get a major infusion of youthful energy later this month. The Community Foundation announced that more than 400 students from around the country will converge on Buffalo to paint and repair up to 70 homes as part of a Christian mission summer work camp. The Nichols School is opening its doors to house and feed the students, who will work in partnership with WNY AmeriCorps.
“Before you can do a thousand homes, you need to do two. We’re now way beyond two, but we’re not at a thousand, yet,” David Hahn-Baker told me of the pace of progress. “On environmental issues, if someone asks me if I can solve it, I’ll tell them, ‘no.’ But if the question is, can I make it better, the answer is, ‘yes’–if for no other reason than that the problem is so big that there are so many opportunities for improvement.”
Unlike the disaster befalling the Gulf, our gusher has thankfully been shut off–lead paint and leaded gasoline were phased out over three decades ago. Our cleanup process may take decades, but it can be done, and you can help. You may not be able to travel to the Gulf to help the tragically impacted coast and coastal residents. But as sure as you’re reading this, you can help and make a difference in our neighborhoods and in the lives of our next generation, who did nothing to have this pollution make its way into their environment, and deserve a future free of its debilitating effects.
Can you help make it better? The answer is: “Yes!”
For more information about the campaign and Coalition, please visit www.WipeOutLead.com, or phone (716) 712-5500.