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Getting The Lead Out

Buffalo has a big health concern that (still) needs to be addressed. Similar to the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, lead poisoning is a really big deal. Whereas in Flint, the problem came about seemingly overnight, in Buffalo, the problem is more longterm. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a problem. Actually, it’s a bigger problem for a number of reasons.

I recently held a Zoom conversation with Councilperson David Rivera, and Eric Mikols – a graduate of UB Law, who is helping to research the data, while navigating ways to get a better handle on the situation. The discussion was illuminating, to say the least.

First, let’s keep in mind three key dates, concerning the removal of lead from our immediate environment:

  • Lead was removed from paint in 1978
  • The Clean Air Act of 1970 got the ball rolling on gasoline
  • The EPA mandated a phase out of leaded gasoline in 1973

Needless to say, lead has been around for a long time, and it still poses a problem to this day.

Approximately 58% of Buffalo’s homes were built prior to WWII, according to Mikols. Over 90% were build prior to 1978 when the use and sale of leaded paint was banned. Because the houses were built so long ago, in many cases there is no record of what materials the pipes were made of – sizes were recorded, but not materials. In recent years, a ROLL (Replace Old Lead Lines) program resulted in the replacement of 300 service lines in Buffalo, but there’s a long way to go, especially in underserved neighborhoods. Rivera told me that a house that he owned experienced a broken line 4 years ago. At the time, he didn’t realize that a lead water line was running to the house, which, of course, he replaced. But if it had not been for the line break, he never would have known about the problem. 

Mikols told me that there is a huge disparity between affluent neighborhoods and those living in poverty, when it comes to exposure to lead. Just think of the older houses that were painted with lead paint back in the day. As windows are raised and lowered, year after year, paint dust settles in the sills. Then, when the wind blows, it carries the tiny lead particles into the homes. So it’s not just about children eating paint chips, which I always thought was the culprit. It’s actually lead-laden dust blowing around the homes.

Between the possible lead water pipes that have not been replaced, poisonous dust particles, paint chips, and lead in the soil, there’s a lot to address. People eat, breathe, and drink the lead, but but they don’t see it, which is why this is such a concern.

Mikols said that the “The gross corruption in Flint drew media attention,” but Rust Belt cities like Buffalo have been dealing with the problem for so long, that it doesn’t get addressed as much as it should.

Rivera assured me that the City is working to address the problem, by rolling out programs (such as providing test kits), while heightening awareness. Mikols is also looking to see if there are any gaps in the legislation that can be identified. His goal is to transition the lead problem from a poverty issue to a non issue. Unfortunately, this has been a nationwide problem that results from years of institutional neglect.

Buffalo’s numbers are staggering,” said Mikols. “1 out of every 20 children city-wide has damage resulting from lead poisoning. The poverty statistic is even higher. Children from poorer neighborhoods are 12 times more likely to be lead poisoned than children from predominantly more affluent neighborhoods. From 2006-2014 approximately 40% of kids tested – more than 8,000 – had lead poisoning. That’s a general concentration that’s 8X worse than Flint at the height of their water crisis. These children are not irreversibly poisoned when they register an Elevated Blood-Lead Level (EBLL). In emergency cases, hospitals will administer medication to poisoned children that is meant to cleanse the blood of heavy metals (and just about everything else); this is known as ‘chelation therapy.’ What is irreversible are the effects resulting from the damage that lead caused in the potentially brief time that it was present in the child’s blood.”

During our conversation, Mikols pointed out something that I could not believe (aside from the staggering statistics). He said that when lead was removed as an additive from gasoline, studies pointed to crime rates decreasing. That means that we’re not only talking about learning abilities being impaired, we’re also looking at lead poisoning leading to elevated crime rates.

Living in a city with some of the freshest water in the nation, it’s a tough reality to think that residents could still be dealing with dated lead waterlines. After all, how can you even tell what kind of water line is running from the street to your house? The City is responsible for the main lines, but the residents are responsible for everything that branches off to the homes. That’s why there has been no comprehensive replacement program. Rivera said that residents can request to have testing kits delivered to them. If the test exceeds a certain lead level, the lines will be replaced. That said, if people are not aware of the problem, then they are not going to request the test kits. That’s why Rivera is pushing to increase awareness throughout the city. After all, even one child exposed to harmful lead is too many.

“According to the EPA, Lake Superior recycles its water roughly every 173 years,” said Mikols. “Lake Erie recycles every 2.7 years. We start in a pretty good spot with clean water. That puts us in a good position to address the issue, if we want.”

Buffalo’s Legislative Committee is meeting today (November 18) to debate the lead-related legislation Rivera’s office sponsored.

For more information on the ROLL program, residents can call the Buffalo Water Authority at 716-847-1065 Ext 146.

The Free Lead Testing Pilot Program (FLTPP) provides NYS residents who are served by either a private well or public water system with an opportunity to have their residential drinking water tested for free. The FLTPP will continue as long as funds are available.

Click here for more information on lead testing and getting results. 


Safe drinking water

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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