Our Poisoned Kids
Syracuse's Poisoned Kids
Syracuse Common Council approved an ordinance last summer to combat child lead poisoning in the city.
arlene Medley talks about her kids the way mothers do. She has nine children, the youngest two a set of twins named Rashad and Devon. She calls her oldest twin “huggy bear” and remarks upon his unparalleled sharing skills. Sometimes she gets overwhelmed thinking about how sweetly he offers a chicken nugget to her or his siblings, when she knows he’d enjoy it himself. Her youngest — a ball of energy — keeps the entire house entertained. He’s the type of exuberance boys have perfected. She’ll always see her twins this way: sweet and bouncy and bright. But lead has augmented these qualities, lessening their self-control.
At age 2, Devon and Rashad, now 5, were diagnosed with lead poisoning, meaning they had a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) or higher as defined by the Centers for Disease Control. Both were likely exposed by ingesting tiny particles of lead dust, perhaps on a windowsill or a door hinge, while playing. Ingestion is common as dust clings to a toddler’s sticky hands, usually finding a way into their mouth.
Their house, which in the past year has become not only home, but school, restaurant, movie theater and playground, was the main culprit. Studies show those who live in homes built before 1978 — the year lead paint was federally banned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission — are likely to still contain the hazard. 90% of Syracuse’s housing stock falls into this category. While many homes across the city have not been tested for lead dust, the ubiquity of lead poisoning among Syracuse’s youth means a substantial number are hazardous, and when the city’s youngest tenants grow up in these homes, lead can easily become a part of them.
The presence of lead dust in Darlene’s home will impact her youngest children for the rest of their lives. But Darlene didn’t know there was lead in her home until the twins were diagnosed. While testing young children, particularly at ages 1 and 2, is part of the fight against lead poisoning, it’s merely reactive. Preemptive measures, like testing and remediating homes before families move in, are crucial, and Syracuse is hoping to adopt a model that leans more heavily on prevention, as seen with the passing of the Lead Abatement and Control ordinance in the summer of 2020. The ordinance allocates funding to help test and remediate high risk homes, particularly properties built before lead paint was federally banned. But the pandemic has slowed its implementation, preventing some of the in-person training required to certify city employees and hire new ones. The first position, for Lead Paint Program coordinator, was posted March 3, eight months after the ordinance was signed into law.
Darlene’s sons were diagnosed with lead poisoning after a routine test for toddlers conducted during their annual Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) wellcheck. Results arrived by mail a month later. At first, she didn’t even open the envelope because it wasn’t marked as urgent, she said.
Darlene initially ignored the letter, but after envelopes continued to pour in, she took a closer look, and learned her young sons had been poisoned by lead.
Darlene is just one of the hundreds of Syracuse parents who receive this news annually — that the shelter they believed to protect their children has in fact poisoned them. In 2019, roughly 500 children in the city of Syracuse were found to have elevated blood lead levels. This number isn’t an aberration. For decades, the city has grappled with high instances of childhood lead poisoning. In 2016, Syracuse was ranked firmly among the 15 regions with the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning.
Flint, Michigan didn’t even make the list.
Syracuse is facing a public health crisis, a fact Darlene knows all too well. More than one in 10 Syracuse children meet the threshold for a lead poisoning diagnosis, putting them at risk for poor attention, decreased executive functioning, poor performance in school, high propensity for risk-taking, increased aggression, lower IQ and hearing and speech problems, to name only a few effects.
Oceanna Fair too has battled alongside her family against the lead crisis, first as a young child and now as a grandparent.
Growing up, she watched her younger brother struggle with lead poisoning. Even now, she is responsible for his care. “He can not function on his own,” she said. “He needs someone to pay his bills. He needs someone to remind him of simple tasks, like to remember to take a shower.”
Lead poisoning permanently changed the trajectory of her brother’s life, and with it, her own. Yet, Fair’s connection to the lead crisis runs even deeper.
“We figured things should have gotten better 40 years later,” she said. “Fast forward, and my granddaughter gets poisoned in our home. For us, it’s like a slap in the face. Why wasn’t this taken care of? Why are we still still dealing with it in such high amounts in the city and on this side of town?”