To help combat the Rochester region's lead paint problem, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, has proposed a new federal tax credit that would offset the cost of cleaning the toxin out of people's homes.
"I am going to use my clout in the Senate to get this passed," Schumer said Thursday, standing in the living room of a home in the city's Maplewood neighborhood that owner Elizabeth Gilliam-Mayo cleared of lead with help from various grant programs.
Schumer's proposal would provide lead removal tax credits nationwide to property owners with annual incomes of $110,000 or less. The credits — with a $3,000 limit — would cover up to half of the cost for getting rid of lead pipes and lead paint and for replacing windows or fixtures contaminated with lead paint. Additionally, his legislation would provide a tax credit of up to $1,000 for specialized cleaning, temporary containment, monitoring and resident education for lead paint contamination.
The issue of lead poisoning has gotten recent nationwide attention, as news broke that the tap water in Flint, Michigan, has contained unsafe levels of the toxic metal, leading to widespread lead poisoning among that city's children.
In his remarks, Schumer cited a story published in the Democrat and Chronicle on Feb. 5 that reported Rochester, like many of the nation's older cites, also has a problem with lead, although the issue here stems primarily from lead paint in older homes.
Indeed, he noted that in 2014, about 7.4 percent of children in Rochester tested with blood-lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter, the point now considered "poisoned."
"To give you comparison, it's only 3.9 percent in Flint," said Schumer. "So, while the Flint story has gotten a lot of news, our problem is more serious and we've got to do something about it just like we've got to do something about Flint, plain and simple."
Lead was a common paint additive until 1978. Most of the poisoning here is ascribed to inhalation and ingestion of lead-paint dust and chips. Nearly 95 percent of all the housing units in Rochester were built prior to 1980 and could potentially contain lead paint.
Consequently, despite a concerted effort in the city of Rochester to remediate lead paint in older homes over the past decade, poisoning persists. In fact, the proportion of children in Rochester found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood was still roughly double that of children in Flint in 2014, the most recent year with complete comparable data.
"While the Flint story has gotten a lot of news, our problem is more serious and we've got to do something about it," said Schumer.
Lead poisoning is not just an urban issue either: much of the housing stock across Monroe County, New York state and other communities throughout the United States was built prior to 1978 — when lead paint was outlawed.
In addition to the tax credits, Schumer said he would also push for expanded funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Home grant program, which has seen its funding drop from an annual $176 million in 2003 to $110 million in the most recent federal budget.
He noted that the overall amount spent under the HUD program is tiny compared with "the damage done if you don't do this. How much it costs in health care costs, societal costs, even jailing and prison costs because kids with these deteriorated mental conditions often turn to crime and they can't hold a job."
Medical experts say there is no amount of lead that is considered safe and there is no cure for lead poisoning. The toxic metal accumulates in the body and stays there, and has so far been proved to cause learning disabilities, behavior problems, hearing difficulties and slowed growth. Ongoing research is even finding some links between lead poisoning and later-in-life dementia.
Elizabeth McDade, program director for the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning in Rochester, said Schumer's legislation would go a long way toward eliminating the potential for lead poisoning.
"We need to find new ways to help families to make their homes healthier and safer from environmental toxins and this bill is a wonderful tool," she said. "Lead poisoning in our homes is not something we created, but it is something we must address."
In 2007, McDade said, 14 percent of children who were lead poisoned in New York were poisoned as a result of home renovations that weren't done properly.
"Make sure any renovations that are being done are being done according to lead safe work practices," she said. "It only takes a sugar packet's worth of dust to to consider a home a lead hazard, really it is a very small amount that can make a huge impact."
Gilliam-Mayo, a retired real estate broker who purchased her home on Flower City Park in 2014, said without the existing lead abatement grant programs, including the HUD program Schumer would like to see expanded, she never would have been able to properly eliminate hazards from the house on her own. She runs a small home-based daycare and frequently has her two grandchildren over to visit.
"I bought the house not realizing the dangers that were in here," she said, noting that she was able to replace the windows, have interior remediation done and have the exterior lead hazards addressed. "That healthy grant, we were able to stretch it to the limit."
Preventing lead exposure: