New York City is committed to reducing lead poisoning in children — our record speaks for itself

By Dr. Mary T. Bassett, Commissioner, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

A recent Reuters report highlights that lead poisoning continues to affect thousands of children nationwide, despite significant progress in the last two decades. A reminder that lead poisoning remains a key public concern is both timely and welcome. However, the article misleadingly suggests that lead poisoning in New York City is worse than Flint, Michigan, where in 2014,as many as 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead.

The crisis in Flint represents a tragic and unacceptable failure of public health. But it is in no way comparable to New York City. In Flint, there was a sudden increase in childhood lead poisoning because of lead contamination of the water supply. New York City’s tap water is safe to drink. Unlike Flint, where rates of children with elevated blood lead levels have continued to increase since 2014, New York City has seen a steady decline in both the rate and number of children with elevated blood lead levels — an 86 percent decrease since 2005. In 2015, 5 percent of children in Flint tested positive for lead poisoning (5 mcg/dL or greater), compared to 1.7 percent in New York City.

In New York City, lead paint dust is the principal source of lead poisoning. It is well known that New York City has some neighborhoods where we continue to see higher rates of lead poisoning — mainly because of deteriorated lead-based paint in older housing. One example is in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Health Department is working closely with religious leaders, health care providers, and trusted community-based organizations to increase awareness about ways to prevent lead poisoning. Even in this neighborhood, the rates of lead poisoning have dropped steadily, with a 70 percent decline since 2005.

Further, the article states that the number of children meeting criteria for lead poisoning, “barely budged between 2012 and 2015.” It is true that the decline in the rate of lead poisoning is slowing down in New York City and nationally. This is partly the “last mile” problem, as the most common sources of lead have been reduced dramatically (gasoline and paint) due to successful policies. Still, in 2016, there was an 8 percent decline in the number of New York City children younger than 6 years of age with a blood lead level of 5 mcg/dL, from 5,371 children in 2015 to 4,928 children in 2016. In 1970, when the City lead poisoning prevention program began, there were epidemic levels of lead poisoning among New York City children. Our progress is astounding — a true public health success story — driven by our strong policies and commitment to ending childhood lead poisoning, beginning with our 1960 ban of lead paint in housing — 18 years ahead of the federal government.

Yet, lead poisoning continues to pose significant public health risks, which is why the Health Department and the City have committed so many resources to the problem. The Health Department alone spends $2 million a year on the Healthy Homes Program and works closely with sister agencies on lead poisoning prevention. Let’s avoid unhelpful and misleading comparisons — and keep focused on continued progress.