[00:00:10] Speaker A: Welcome to Uptown Chats, a podcast where we share stories about environmental justice by and for everyday people. I'm your co host, Jaron.
[00:00:19] Speaker B: And I'm your other co host, Lonnie.
[00:00:21] Speaker A: And the question we're asking ourselves today is why is childhood lead poisoning still an issue and why is it so bad in New York?
[00:00:30] Speaker B: We'll be exploring these questions with the help of two special guests. Sonal Jessel, who is our director of City and State Policy at WeAct, also my supervisor. And we have Matthew Shasher, who's a former attorney at Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, who has come out of retirement for us.
[00:00:47] Speaker A: You want him? We got him. Yes, but before we get to all that stuff, Lonnie, can you tell us what we act's mission is?
[00:00:54] Speaker B: My pleasure. We act's mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and our low income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.
[00:01:06] Speaker A: Nailed it. It's better every time. Now, before we get into all of the nitty gritty with lead and New York, we have know set the stage because I know a lot of folks are not familiar with lead. You may be wondering why are we talking about this like the lead in the water? Is that what we're talking about?
[00:01:23] Speaker B: Many people probably are wondering this is still an issue.
[00:01:26] Speaker A: Yes, exactly. Well, we're going to get to first, you know, important question.
[00:01:30] Speaker C: What is lead?
[00:01:31] Speaker A: Why is it bad for our health? And why is New York the worst? Well, first of all, lead is a chemical element with the symbol PB and the atomic number 82 for all of those chemistry nerds out there. And it's a soft and malleable metal that is also considered one of the heavy metals. But because of those qualities, soft and malleable metal, it's been used in all kinds of materials, including paint, pipes and other products and it can also be found in soil. And of course, one of our primary concerns is paint and pipes, but the other ones are a concern as well. And that's because lead can adversely affect our health through our nervous system, can impact kidney function, immune system function, reproductive and development systems, and also our cardiovascular system. And it's especially toxic to children because they're small and they're still developing. And so that exposure can lead to a lifetime of negative health impacts. And a fact for New York City specifically, in 2021, 2557 children, over 2500 children under the age of six were identified with elevated blood lead levels. So that's children that not only were they exposed, but it made it into their body and left them with elevated blood lead levels. And so they're likely to have lifelong impacts as a result of that. That's a lot of kids. That's a lot of kids that are being exposed to lead. That's not great. And we know that that's not fairly distributed. It's an environmental justice podcast. So no surprises here. So Lonnie, can you tell us more about what does that look like? What's the breakdown of these kids that are exposed to lead?
[00:03:09] Speaker B: Absolutely. And then just one thing to say there is that there's no safe level of lead in a child's blood. Right.
A number of children under the age of six with these elevated blood levels should be zero.
That is the absolute goal. It becomes an environmental justice issue because 81% of the children under age of six with these elevated blood levels hard.
[00:03:31] Speaker A: To say it is elevated blood levels.
[00:03:35] Speaker B: The reason why this is an environmental justice issue is because 81% of the children under age of six with elevated blood lead levels were Asian, Black or Latinx. And again, that was 2021 data that we have. This is often attributed to lower quality housing conditions, which are parallel with a lot of Asian, black and Latinx families throughout New York City. And it's really important to point out that a lot of people think of poor housing quality. They often think of public housing first. But when it comes to this particular issue, 91% of those kids who have those elevated blood levels were in private dwellings. And so that's private housing, not necessarily public housing. So it is a huge problem both for public and private housing.
[00:04:17] Speaker A: Yeah. And my understanding is there are some laws on the books that are supposed to protect us from lead exposure. Right. Can you tell us about some of those?
[00:04:26] Speaker B: Exactly? The big law is Local Law One of 2004, which basically is the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. And this was a behemoth of a law that had a lot of different aspects to it. So it defines lead based paint hazards, talks about the violations if you have lead paint within a dwelling, inspections that are supposed to happen, what are the owners supposed to do of a building, talks about safe work practices for construction, the response to a lead poison child.
[00:04:58] Speaker A: Right.
[00:04:58] Speaker B: So if kids get tested, what are we supposed to do? What is the city supposed to do going forward? And also then just the general enforcement of this law. And so this was a big law that had some gaps and some holes in it. And since 2004, there have been other laws added to kind of fill in some of those gaps and to strengthen the law, which is something that the New York City Coalition to Inlet Poisoning, also known as Nike help with Matthew Shashir, is a part of goal is to advocate for legislation and enforcement of these lead laws. Recently, the Coalition Nikel released its 2024 Lead Agenda, which is basically a roadmap to eliminating lead poisoning in New York City. So it's all of our recommendations to make sure that the city continues to get to that number. Zero.
[00:05:49] Speaker A: Yeah, because that's what we're aiming for. Right, but thank you for that, Lonnie. As you can tell Lonnie does this work in the day to day. She's very knowledgeable about it. So thanks for that quick recap. But with that, we're going to jump into our interviews with Sonal and Matthew. They have a great overview of the current landscape of work that WeAct is doing, but also the long history. There's a legacy of dealing with lead that's been going on in the world, but especially here in New York and New York City. And so we're going to walk you through that journey as we kind of went through it ourselves and looking at that history. So enjoy.
Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Uptown Chats. Before we get carried away, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your path to WeAct?
[00:06:43] Speaker D: Yes, and I'm so happy to be here waiting many months for my turn to be on the podcast. My name is Sonal jessel. I'm the director of policy at WeAct. I oversee our city and our state policy work with a wonderful team of seven. And my path to WeAct was through grad school, went to public health school, researching the impacts of climate change on health, and was particularly inspired and mentored by Dr. Diana Hernandez, who taught me all about energy insecurity and what it means to not have adequate cooling in your home and how that is a really big environmental justice problem. So it gave me a lot of passion around doing local policy work and local community based participatory research. And because We Act was right there, it brought me right here. And I was lucky that there is a job open when I was looking for one.
[00:07:41] Speaker A: I appreciate that. Kind of a little bit of a backstory. I also find it funny because I went to the same program, and it's so funny that we both ended up here. There's something funny about both the physical proximity, but also just like the relationship proximity of the Mammoth School of Public Health and We Act, and how clearly there's some kind of pathway that we don't know about that's just directing people here.
[00:08:04] Speaker D: Yes. Because Columbia, I guess, the school was shaping minds meant for WeAct in many ways. Yes, we are lucky.
[00:08:11] Speaker A: It's an invisible yeah.
[00:08:14] Speaker C: Yeah.
[00:08:14] Speaker B: So we're talking about childhood lead poisoning in this episode. So my question is, how does preventing childhood lead poisoning show up in the work that We Act does?
[00:08:27] Speaker D: Yeah, I mean, I think childhood lead poisoning is a topic that We Act has been working on for a very long time, unfortunately, because it's been a problem for generations. And it really is a very textbook environmental justice issue in that, especially in New York City, and this is true for other cities around the world, but for New York, it's like 80% of children with lead poisoning are children of color. And so it's very clear that there is an injustice going on in terms of who is exposed to lead and how that's being addressed or not addressed. And so I guess it's been a problem for a long time and is core to weak's work because it really is addressing this issue of how people's housing is not adequate which is something weak really spends a lot of time working on in many different facets, but also how policies haven't exactly led to fixing a problem and have continued to fail children of color when they are not failing other children as well. So it is, I think, a key topic area for We Act in that, you know, it's something that is not only a problem in New York City but is a problem statewide unique to New York. We have the oldest housing stock, so we have the worst lead problem as a state. And so that's also, I think, a mantle that we have to kind of bear with our work is that we are dealing with a very large scope of problem when it comes to lead poisoning.
[00:10:08] Speaker A: If I remember correctly, this is something that was part of your beginning journey here at WeAct, correct. Can you maybe talk through a little bit about how the work has changed since your time starting here at WeAct and compared to where we kind of stand?
[00:10:22] Speaker D: Yeah. Yes. So when I first started at WeAct, I was doing all the city policy work, which is what LJ is leading up now. And so I was convening the city coalition that we manage on lead poisoning. And when I came into We Act, they had just finished up one of two reports on what we were calling lead loopholes. So it was kind of exposing the fact that New York City has woefully inadequate implementation of lead laws that the city created that was meant to end childhood lead poisoning by 2010. So I was really intrigued by that and obviously was in shock and horror that this problem was so pervasive in a way that I didn't know, I didn't study in school, I didn't learn about. I grew up in California. We didn't have as much lead, albeit there's still some, but a lot of newer buildings are in California don't have that as much. And so I was really shocked by really just the fact that the city had dropped the ball on doing what they were supposed to do in terms of requiring buildings to get rid of lead. And so I was able to help convene that coalition work on passing a couple of key bills that were trying to continue to close those loopholes in the enforcement. Requiring apartments that have pregnant people in it are sort of now covered in terms of apartments that need to be checked. For example, there were a couple of other loopholes that we closed there, but that was really exciting. And then I got to be a part of writing report number two, which was continuing to show that the enforcement wasn't working about two years later and that in particular, even if the city was administering violations for lead paint to building owners, they never actually collected on those violations. So they kind of just let them go. Nobody paid fines, nobody got in trouble. So that was the second report key finding that was really horrific was actually comparing it to like street vendor violations, for example, where the city really enforces those rules and imposes fines and collects those fines consistently, but they don't do it for building owners that are poisoning children with lead. So that report was really interesting and eye opening and frustrating and that was kind of my first foray into it.
[00:12:56] Speaker B: I think that's interesting too of just the idea of what we enforce and what we don't enforce and what doesn't seem to make any sense sometimes when you kind of think about this like, well, there are children who are being really pretty much affected for the rest of their lives and a lot of these are preventable. This is preventable issue.
Can you talk a little bit about the current state between the difference between the city and the state? Is the city doing more than the state or vice versa and kind of like how does that play out?
[00:13:26] Speaker D: Yes, a very important question. So the city has local law, one of 2004, which was passed in 2004, and that is sort of the umbrella lead law for New York city that's saying when an apartment goes vacant, a building owner has to abate lead in that apartment so that when they rent it out again, there's no lead in there. So turnover was the idea.
Since then, we've all been working on making that bill stronger and increasing the enforcement. New York state on the other hand, so all the other municipalities don't have that law at all. So there is no statewide mandate around abating lead in paint, in water, in soil. Those are the top sources. So that is a big problem because you don't have really a leverage point in terms of requiring a building owner, requiring a homeowner to get rid of lead in their home that they then rent out to another family or to their own families in a way that you do in New York city. And so for the advocacy you do in New York City, it's very much based off of saying, well, New York City, you're supposed to do this, you have a law, you have to uphold it. You said you're going to do it and you have a lot more leverage, you have a lot more to argue and you can even use the legal system to your benefit, which we've seen attorney general James use the city's lead laws to go after bad acting landlords. But for New York state, the rest of the state, unless an individual municipality has the laws, which pretty much none of them do, there are really no protections. So that's something that we're trying to do on a state level with our lead free kids new York coalition, which is our state level coalition to put in a law that's statewide that will help people with their lead in their homes.
[00:15:20] Speaker A: A question I have and you kind of touched on a little bit in some of your answers already, is why has the work been stalled so much? It sounds like a lot of it has to do with lack of response. The city and the state obviously failing to make the actions that are kind of being pointed out in some of these reports, like, you're not doing this, you need to be doing that. What are some of the main reasons why this work has been so stalled or why it has not been addressed at this point? Or things that have been real barriers? Like, has it been really just the lack of fines and that not feeling not creating that kind of pressure on landlords? For someone who's been doing it for a while, doing this work for a while, what are some of the things that you've noticed that are like, this is a huge hurdle that we just keep ignoring?
[00:16:06] Speaker D: Right.
Three things come to mind, and I'll try to be succinct.
There's a big one, the main one, in my opinion, racism. Racism is a hurdle. This is an issue, like I said, that primarily affects children of color, low income children. And we've seen in the history of the United States that is not a priority in terms of environmental health and environmental justice and keeping people safe. And so that is certainly a barrier we're dealing with. We don't find that there's a lot of political will for addressing childhood lead poisoning. I think it's a problem that's been around for a very long time, and everyone thinks it's solved and doesn't worry about it. And so that, to me, is the core thing that's the core thing that's operating here is who do we care about in our policy making and who do we not? So to me, that's the biggest hurdle. There are some other contributing factors that we kind of constantly come across in the advocacy space. The other big one is landlords and the real estate industry in new York city. They are a very powerful group, and they tend to not like to be regulated. And so we are constantly up against the real estate industry in terms of creating requirements for building owners, landlords, people selling homes, people renting homes to actually have any kind of responsibility towards maintaining a healthy home. I mean, I'm sure all of us that live in New York City have experienced a problem in our housing and been like, how are we not addressing this? And we don't. And that's because the real estate industry is really powerful. So that's something that we're also up against. And then lastly, cost. Cost is a big barrier. We don't think that makes sense. It doesn't cancel out when you add medical costs to how much this actually costs the city and the state this problem. But that is something that's argued a lot, is that the cost of abating lead, the cost of testing for lead, the cost of replacing lead pipes, all of that is too expensive. So that's the other major barrier that we come up against. We're seeing that a lot in our work on the state level in terms of implementing some lead laws. Cost has been coming up a lot as a big barrier.
[00:18:28] Speaker A: Yeah, I see so many similarities in what you're saying in the work around asthma as well and the racism component of it. If you look any map of asthma outcomes in New York City, probably New York State as well, it's communities of almost for anyone in this space. If you look at any environmental justice maps, you could basically just substitute them from one to the other and just change the title. They all look very similar. It's kind of telling that same story.
[00:18:56] Speaker D: You'll see, like Washington Heights, for example, is a really good one because they're an area that apparently has really high lead violations without any actual fine collection. But they're also a neighborhood that has really high asthma rates. So you can see there's totally an overlap, almost one to one.
[00:19:15] Speaker A: Yeah.
[00:19:16] Speaker B: One of the things I found interesting in those kind of three buckets that you laid out is, and something that I encounter every time is just the education piece. This idea that people didn't know it was still a problem. It wasn't until I started working at WeAct and I started taking over some of the work that you were doing that I'm just like, oh, why is this a problem still? And how is this happening? And learning all these different factors. Because every time I've talked to an elected official or someone that we want to move to do something to help along, it's always shocked and surprised that this is still an issue. Now, whether they continue to do anything about it another question.
But they're always shocked and surprised that this is a problem. And I'm wondering, do you think this is also an issue of public awareness? How many people just who are not doing this work are unaware that this is a bigger problem? Do you think if more people knew that it could push along some type of more advocacy in that way?
[00:20:14] Speaker D: I don't know. That's a good question. I don't know if I've actually seen any kind of statistic on public awareness of lead in New York City, and I'm really curious if there is one. I feel like people tend to know, at least in New York City, maybe because I grew up in a different place, that this wasn't as much of a problem. I didn't hear about it as much. But in New York City, people seem to know about lead, but what they definitely don't seem to know about is their rights when it comes to lead. So I think that is also a key intervention point. And I remember that was something that we had advocated for. And I don't remember the exact contents of the bill, but we did pass a bill into law. Maybe like right when you were starting to take over, that was around flying for lead in apartments, and maybe it was medical offices that you actually have to show people what their rights are when it comes to lead in their homes. But I think that's something that nobody seems to know, that there actually is a law that if you move into an apartment, your landlord was supposed to have taken care of the lead. If you moved after 2004, your land was supposed to take care of the lead. So everyone is entitled to that.
[00:21:31] Speaker C: Yeah.
[00:21:32] Speaker B: And it seems like there are multiple barriers when navigating the system alone, especially for people who probably are living in lower income neighborhoods and don't necessarily have the same resources as other people because I've heard wealthier, more fluent parents talk about their struggles with navigating the system for lead. So I can't imagine what goes on when someone already doesn't have those same resources, has to figure out the health situation and then try to figure out the housing situation, if they even try to go that far. And then where do you go? Can I sue?
All while trying to deal with the actual health problem as well for their child. So I always find that pretty just stark, that the system itself doesn't lend itself to help anyone try to navigate so that that child can grow up successful and have better health outcomes, but doesn't happen that way.
[00:22:27] Speaker D: And we didn't even talk about exactly how lead even impacts you. But kids that are poisoned with lead have a lifetime of impact. And so you can imagine a difficulty navigating a system when you were meant to be protected that has a lifetime of impact when it comes to lead poisoning. It's so bad.
[00:22:49] Speaker A: Yeah. Especially thinking about just a lot of folks who there's like multiple generations in a home and how that translates to multiple generations that are then impacted by that same exposure. And then it has a compounding effect essentially on so many dimensions of your life at that point.
[00:23:05] Speaker D: Yeah.
[00:23:06] Speaker A: So just to kind of circle back to something that we again started to allude to, where does our work now kind of stand in terms of what we are specifically advocating for? Sounds like we've both come a long way, but also not. And there's maybe different challenges now than three years ago and however long ago when all this work started.
What would you say are kind of some of the main things that we as an organization are kind of advocating for in the space now to help really in a significant way move this work forward.
[00:23:37] Speaker D: And I'll say we act has been involved in lead is my understanding since the 90s. It was like one of the first things we act was involved in with the New York City Coalition to end Lead poisoning passing Local One of 2004. So yeah, the organization has been doing this origin I have not been doing this since 1990. I am still young but yeah, so laws have been passed which is good. There are more mechanisms in place to be testing homes, to be requiring homes to be abated, to be filing information about how the testing goes with agencies, requiring agencies to audit is something that we recently got done thanks to LJ and running the city coalition. So all of these things have happened which is really exciting and what we have seen, and I guess we don't know if it's directly attributed to us, but it feels very related to after the reports that we put out and the hearings that we've done over the past five or so years in the city. And then the comptroller actually also did a Led report around that same time for the city. We have seen enforcement go up. So we have seen the city adhering to their laws a little bit better. So we are seeing that get better. And over the past 2030 years since Local One did go into place, we have seen the number of kids with blood declining. It's not declining at the rate that it should given that this is 100% preventable problem. But it is going down, enforcement is going up, code violation, fines are being collected more than they were before. So we are seeing it move in the right direction certainly.
But there are still lots of things to do, lots of problems to solve. I think maybe LJ can say a little bit about it but I think something around funding is something folks are talking about in the city is how do we make sure that the resources are there to actually do the work that needs to get done.
[00:25:35] Speaker B: Quick follow up question for that. As we kind of go through in this work we're seeing some progress being made. What happens when say, the action levels are lowered?
[00:25:46] Speaker D: Yes, so that recently happened, it went from five parts per billion to 3.5 parts per million via the CDC saying that is now the safe level of lead which by the way all pediatricians say there is no safe level of lead. But that's what the administration has put out federally. So what happens essentially is that all of a sudden you have more kids with elevated blood levels because you have a lower threshold of what is considered elevated. And so in theory you have more kids to put through some kind of supportive system to help them with learning to help them with. If you have to go through therapy to lower your blood level, which happens in severe cases to recoup medical costs, whatever that is. There are more kids in that pipeline all of a sudden. But at the same time, you're capturing more children who have some kind of lead exposure, which is a good thing. So you do need, I think, more resources, more funding, which is a thing we're talking about now to address the problem. But it is ultimately a good thing because you do want I mean, if we had our choice, we'd be capturing every kid that has more than zero parts per billion of lead in their blood. So it's a good thing, but it does require expanded services.
[00:27:11] Speaker A: And I always love a good analogy. It's like comparable to if you have a bunch of kids in school and you all of a sudden define failing as a D instead of an F. So now kids that have an F or a D are considered failing. Now you have a whole swath of kids at school who are now considered failing that weren't considered failing before, and now you need to come up with a success plan to get them to improve and have better yeah, love a good analogy.
[00:27:34] Speaker D: It's a good one.
[00:27:35] Speaker A: Lonnie looks at me with the same face every time I come on land this plane.
[00:27:40] Speaker B: Where is this going?
[00:27:42] Speaker A: I feel like stuff when you really get into the toxicology of lead and other environmental health exposures, it gets really complicated really fast. And I feel like trying to comprehend what does that mean to people who are not in that space? Can be hard sometimes. So we've all been in school and.
[00:27:59] Speaker D: We all we know D's and F's, d's and F's.
[00:28:04] Speaker B: It's kind of difficult when you say people there's no safe level, and then people are like, well, then if I'm getting tested and there is a level and there's something there, why isn't no one panicking if there's no safe level?
[00:28:18] Speaker D: So, yes, definitely, yeah, that's where you see and this is true across so many policies in the environmental health space, but that's where you see the difference between a governmental decision and a health based decision. Oftentimes they are in conflict with each other, and that's half the battle.
[00:28:36] Speaker A: Yeah. The only thing I'll say about my analogy, so it doesn't fall apart too bad is that obviously the grade children being exposed to lead, not their fault. At the end of the day, this is very much outside of their control. So we don't need to dissect the analogy too much.
[00:28:51] Speaker D: You're worrying about your analogy.
[00:28:53] Speaker A: That's okay. It's fine.
[00:28:54] Speaker D: Don't worry. And it also like we liken the amount of lead exposure to Sweet and Low packet.
[00:29:00] Speaker B: Oh, yes, I love that.
[00:29:01] Speaker D: The little sugar packet. That's as much lead as you need to kind of be impacted for your lifetime. So it's not very much. It's probably pretty easy to get that level of exposure if you have. Any lead in your home. So certainly not the fault of children.
[00:29:16] Speaker A: Before we wrap up two things, one, I want to open up the space for you to share anything that we haven't talked about yet that you feel like is really important for folks to know and understand related to this work around lead. And then two, I think you have a funny story to tell us about your interaction with Chat GBG, and I think that people might want to hear that.
[00:29:35] Speaker D: Okay, well, I'll give the first answer is just like, what's next? What can we do? So we are currently working at the city and the state level around lead work, and there are opportunities for anybody listening to be involved. We are working on trying to pass a very important bill on the state level called the Lead Testing Right to Know Act. And what this bill is doing is saying that before any property is bought or sold, whoever is selling the property does need to show proof that they've tested the property for lead and the results of that test. So it doesn't need to happen when you're buying or selling the property. It just has to happen at some point. Like, if you've done it, you just have to kind of give the piece of paper that you did it, and that would then go to a registry in the Department of Health for the state, and the state will actually know where lead poisoning cases might be and where to kind of target remediation efforts. And so this is a bill that will be helpful across the state. Like I said, New York State doesn't have anything, and there are so many communities outside of New York City that need help. Buffalo is the big one. It has the worst childhood lead poisoning crisis out of any city in the United States. So Buffalo was really having a big problem. And so this would help that city as well as so many other well, really not just cities, but any area of New York State. So we do advocacy days in Albany to try to pass a bill. We'll have letter writing opportunities for commenting and hearing, telling your story. There's a million ways to get involved, and we open that up for anyone that wants to do that with us.
[00:31:13] Speaker A: And this is a shameless plug for me to promote the Healthy Homes Working Group, which is where a lot of this work will kind of start to live here at WeAct. And I'll make sure to include information in the show notes for how to join the Healthy Homes Working Group and get involved, including doing some of that advocacy work at the top of the year, which will be really awesome. Well, that leads us back to the second question, which I'm excited about. Unless, LAN, you got something else you wanted to touch on first.
[00:31:36] Speaker B: No, let's get to that question.
[00:31:37] Speaker A: Yes, let's hear about Sonal's experience with chat GBT and lead.
[00:31:43] Speaker D: So I was learning about what is chat GPT, and I thought the best way to learn was to see how well chat GPT can write comments for a hearing.
And so I think a lead hearing must have been coming up and I was writing comments for some reason. I don't know why else I would have had them, but I think a couple of us were joking that people in New York City love their dogs and they really cherish dogs. And how do you make people care about issues? Well, maybe we should make them care about like they think their dog is in trouble, we think we might create more political attention. And so I just decided to see what it would be like to have a public comment from the perspective of a dog in terms of their concern with lead. And the title was bark to end lead poisoning. And it included amazing facts about how dogs are also affected by lead, apparently, and they don't like it either, and they also want lead laws. I don't remember the exact facts, but it was amazing. And the chat GPT created so many little puns in there. It was excellent. And I did not submit it for public comment.
Could not take that seriously. But it was plenty of time to comment.
[00:32:58] Speaker A: Yes. So for all of you out there experimenting with chat GPT, I'm sure you could recreate that scenario if you really wanted to know what's on the other end of that submission.
[00:33:07] Speaker D: Just write this from a perspective of a dog.
[00:33:11] Speaker A: Yes.
[00:33:12] Speaker D: And it's pretty much done for you. It's the whole point.
[00:33:14] Speaker C: Yes.
[00:33:14] Speaker A: I feel like now all the students out there can submit algebra from the perspective of a dog.
Charles Dickens from the perspective of a dog. All homework will be in dog perspective.
[00:33:26] Speaker D: Unless your professor really likes cats, and then I advise you do it from the perspective of a cat.
[00:33:31] Speaker A: Yes. It's just going to turn into what's, the Fancy Feast commercial? No, it's the meow mix. Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow.
[00:33:38] Speaker D: That's the whole meow to end lead poisoning.
[00:33:41] Speaker B: Someone's going to review one of my testimonies coming up and be like, why are there random barking and meowing within your testimony? I was like, it's from a perspective, yes.
[00:33:51] Speaker A: Well, thank you so much, someone. We appreciate you being on the show and I'm sure we'll have to make it a little bit sooner, but you don't have to go ten months again before we have you back on. So thank you so much. And yeah, we'll have you back again soon.
[00:34:03] Speaker D: Thanks, guys. Happy to be here.
[00:34:13] Speaker C: My name is Matthew Shashir, I'm an attorney emeritus, which I guess is a fancy way of saying I still work in some capacity at a community group called Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, but as an unpaid volunteer now, which is how I wanted it. I was involved in environmental issues from a young age and as well in racial justice issues from a young age. As a child. When I was seven, my parents actually had me out leafletting in a suburban community for open housing, fair housing, which I thought was fun because I got to play postman and stick flyers in people's houses, and I couldn't understand why people reacted so strangely to the content of what I was handing out. But in my twenty s, I was very heavily involved in the anti nuclear movement, particularly around nuclear power generation, and became somewhat infamous or famous or whatever for a number of arrests at the Shorm Nuclear Plan out in Long Island, which caused me to be exposed to a lot of lawyers. And I was beginning to think about how I could be more effective in assisting movements in trying to promote social change, and decided to get a law degree.
Not so much that I wanted to be a litigator, but I just wanted to have that kind of free floating credential you have when you have esq after your name that lets you go and present on subjects where you really have no formal, substantive academic training, but somehow people let you get away with it because you're a lawyer.
So I was in the first class of City University of New York law school, whose mission was law for social justice, and I started working in a legal services office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back before Williamsburg became a trendy place. But they had a lot of environmental issues there, and I was working with community groups there, and I love that work. But I was recruited back around 1990 to be the first attorney in a project at the center for Constitutional Rights on Environmental Justice, back at a time when no one was talking about environmental justice. And the connection to We Act for me is long because the person who pushed this idea at that agency was Vernice Miller, who was one of the founders of WeAct, and that put me in touch with her and Peggy Shepard and others. And I began working on a variety of cases around environmental justice, some down in Louisiana and so forth. I found the model, however, of that organization really wasn't a good fit for me because it was not per se really connected to grassroots organizing on the of. I kind of felt helicoptered into places and tried to come up with some legal strategy, but I think organizing is nine tenths of the effort on these kinds of issues.
So this is how I got into Lead because a friend of mine who's since passed away named Richard Rivera had been counsel to the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning in the 80s.
He called me up one day about something that he read in the paper about the fact that the city was sandblasting really high content, lead content paint off the Williamsburg Bridge. And it was kind of raining down on the Lower east Side. And then when people complained there, the city stopped and went over the other side and kept going. And they said, why are you doing it here? And they said, well, no one's complained yet. And we brought a lawsuit challenging the city's actions on the basis that they had come up with a protocol for how they were doing this work without doing an environmental review, which we thought was required by state law because it was a policy.
And we won that lawsuit. It went up on appeal, was affirmed, and it required, at the end of the day, a major change in the way the city was deleting its elevated transportation infrastructure, which is covered with lead paint because lead was a good preservative, but they need to get rid of it. So you see modern lead abatement on bridges going on. They're surrounded with kind of like a cristo shrink wrap with negative air pressure and all kinds of stuff.
And from there I had reached out to an attorney I knew at Bronx Legal Services named Lucy Billings, who had been doing work about the city's issues around lead poisoning and housing and had started a class action lawsuit against the city back in 1985.
And I needed her expertise to work on this case. So we worked as CoCouncil and then around the end of 94, she invited me to come work with her. And so I was excited by that opportunity and came to work at Bronx Legal Services with her. About a year and a half later, she decided to run for judge and kind of dropped all this stuff into my lap. And we ended up taking the project to Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation in 95 because a prior iteration of right wing congress in the 90s basically passed all kinds of restrictions on what legal services programs could do with if. They had any federal money involved, and they couldn't bring class actions and they couldn't challenge welfare reform that the Clinton administration was pushing through and all kinds of stuff. So we had to find a different group to do this work. I ended up finding a home for our project at Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, which turned out to be really an ideal fit. At first I didn't think it would because it was really a community based organization and I was sort of on my side project doing this work around lead poisoning prevention, policy reform, but it was very heavily guided out of the experiences and the needs of the people in the community who are coming in as clients. And so it wasn't so much as I described before about helicoptering in and saying, well, we have the answers. It was seeing what happened to our clients, what went wrong, why their kids got poisoned, why landlords failed them, why the city failed them, why the state failed them, why the federal government failed them, and trying to come up with solutions for those in a variety of ways. And that was, for me, a reason why I stayed there for so long until I basically retired last year.
[00:41:41] Speaker A: Yeah, it's really interesting to hear this kind of really long trajectory of how you ended up in the role that you're in now and doing the work and kind of being in a new stage of it now very recently. And what I find interesting and we've had conversations about this before that outside of the folks that work on the issue of lead and or folks that have really intimately experienced the consequences of lead exposure, a lot of people are unaware of it and or don't know that it's still a thing for you. Up to the point when you actually started to work on lead as an issue professionally, how much were you aware of lead paint being an issue in terms of an exposure for folks and it being a real environmental health issue?
[00:42:30] Speaker C: Probably not a great deal. I mean, I knew it was out there, but the paradigm for the way people looked at lead exposure was it's an urban problem. It's kids picking up paint chips and sticking in their mouths and chewing on it.
[00:42:49] Speaker B: It's the kid's fault, basically.
[00:42:50] Speaker C: Yeah. Or their parents. It's bad parenting. And part of that, too, is a reflection of the way the science on this has evolved. I mean, lead is a toxic substance that we've known is toxic to human beings for thousands of years. Thousands. There was a French scientist named Matthew Joseph, which is my first two names, orphila who was considered to be the founder of the modern science of toxicology. And he wrote approximately a little over 200 years ago, he wrote a paper, and he said, you know, of all the subjects out there that are toxic, he says there have been more papers and more studies on lead than any other thing combined. This is 200 years ago, so we knew this stuff was toxic a long, long time ago. But the subtlety of how it affects people and the pathways for exposure were not well understood at the beginning and are only still being analyzed in terms of how does the lead get there, how does the lead get into the body, and what does lead do to people?
It was early on thought that this was primarily an occupational disease from people who worked in lead smelters painters and people who worked in setting type or whatever. And it was only at the beginning that the end of the 19th century, early 20th century, that some awareness began to appear in the scientific literature about the fact that paint and old paint was poisoning children.
The first papers on this came from Australia, actually, from doctors who were treating lead poison children in the state of Queensland, which is in the tropical part of Australia, where, because of the temperatures, kids spent a lot of. Time during the middle of the day hanging out on the front porch because it was cool and shady and the old paint there was peeling off and the kids were ingesting it somehow and they're getting lead poisoned. So there were some early papers on the subject but we kept producing and using lead based paint in the United States all the way through 1978. It was banned in most industrialized countries by 1920, but not here. And there was, I think, quite a lot of denial, mostly funded by the lead industry to say that this is not only not dangerous, it's in fact the best thing you can use in your home. It's safe and sanitary. And there are all kinds of papers on this. And you can see if you hunt around the web, you can see some of the advertising that was used, where it was recommended as the safe and sanitary and modern substance to use use it in schools and so forth because it was easy to clean. The little kids put their hands all over it and you could just clean it off with a rag and you'd be good to go. And there was a fairly strong sense, even until the late 80s that the problem of lead poisoning was largely as a result of the use of tetraethyl lead in gasoline which began to be phased out in the 70s.
Not because of this concern over lead as a toxin, so much as that's when they started to use catalytic converters on cars to control smog and it turns out that leaded gasoline would destroy them in a few hundred years, in a few hundred miles. So they started requiring cars to use unleaded fuel and as a result, urban lead levels did go down significantly among children who lived in densely populated areas with a lot of traffic and people thought it was a lot was coming from lead in the solder in food cans and maybe from the water. But paint was not really suspected as the main source of lead poisoning or at least not to the prominence it had. And part of it was just not a clear understanding of the mechanisms by how lead was became, as I would say, bioavailable in a child's environment and ingested and taken up into the body. And in the, in the 90s there started to be much more focus on how that actually worked and it began to be understood that it was really not so much whether there was paint on the wall but whether that paint got into a condition that it could be absorbed and primarily through dust.
It's now understood that vanishingly small quantities of lead dust can have very significant adverse impacts on children. The first standards that finally came out about lead dust required that defined a hazard and required cleaning to get lead dust on floors. For example, to a standard that was 100 micrograms per square foot which was a meaningless number to the listener. But I can describe that as basically a particle of coffee sweetener, which is a particle smaller than a grain of sugar. That's about 100 micrograms. So if you can, in your mind take that little particle and crush it and spread it evenly across the area of basically a floor tile, a square foot, that's the level that was set in around 2000 as the maximum that was permissible. And that was based upon studies that found that only a small percentage of children exposed at that level would have bloodlet levels that were greater than what was considered to be lead poisoning at that point. Since then, the levels that we consider to be of concern in terms of blood lead in children has significantly been tightened. The technology for cleaning and testing lead dust has improved dramatically. So right now in New York City, we're down at a standard of five micrograms per square foot. So my little particle of sweetener has now been divided into 20 parts per square foot. It's like you just can't see something like that. So you think about that microscopic quantity of dust, and then you think about the older conception that it was like, well, it's these big paint chips that kids are picking up and eating, but really it's this fine dust that you can't even see.
Unfortunately, the technology and the practices for dealing with lead based paint and lead based paint hazards really weren't there at the beginning, and they've changed a great deal as a result of a lot of advocacy and a lot of science.
[00:50:06] Speaker B: That's a really interesting overview because as you were talking about the different kind of stages and when there was some type of awareness or involvement by other folks and that weren't just advocates like yourself, when would you say that government started to actually pay attention? And what was that kind of that moment? Or were there moments where government actually decided to step in and try to address this issue alongside advocates and lawyers?
[00:50:35] Speaker C: Well, I guess let me break it down into the three buckets the federal, state and local. The federal evolution around lead hazards and lead control has started around 19 and early 70s. But it has not been greatly effective, in my opinion, because to a large extent because the federal government doesn't really regulate private housing. Which is where 99% of the lead poisoning takes place. Despite the kind of sometimes popular conception that it's public housing is the problem and it's really not. It's mostly private housing, but there's really little that the federal government does that regulates private housing. There's just no federal role in that. There has been some input from the feds, for example, if they're providing Section Eight subsidies for private housing, then they have certain mandates and so on. But what the feds have done is come up with a variety of standards about defining hazards, defining exposure, providing the funding for research that developed the tools for measuring lead dust lead and paint the devices that could be utilized to inspect a home, coming up with standards for things like risk assessment and safe work practice and so on, that's been the major federal role and a couple of other pieces that probably not worth my going into in the time we have here. But it's largely a very indirect role. I mean, there's nothing in federal law that what's going to require an average landlord in an average town to do anything to prevent children from being lead poisoned. On a state level, new York was a little ahead of the curve. It banned the application of what was considered to be lead pain in 1970, which was eight years before the feds largely did that. But it's really a conundrum. I mean, New York has the largest number of lead poison children and the largest stock of older housing with lead based paint in the country.
And yet, with the exception of a few communities, starting with New York and then Rochester and recently Syracuse, in most of the state of New York, there are no regulations and laws and remedies to assist a tenant living in a rental property where there's lead hazards other than waiting till your child gets lead poison. And then the health department comes in and says, oh, we've got a problem here. Of course, the downside is that once the child's lead poisoned, the injuries are permanent. So it's kind of a really backwards way to look for safe housing. It's kind of using the children as guinea pigs to find out if there's lead there when there's actually devices you can test. So it's unfortunate. I mean, there have been attempts over many decades to push for New York to have some kind of state policies on eliminating lead poisoning out of kind of collective activism.
We did push the state to come up with some programs where they focused on what were considered to be communities of concern, the areas in the state that had the highest lead poisoning and tried to come in with some resources to help clean up the housing. And most recently, the legislature passed some amendments to the state public health law that's going to require that all housing in these communities of concern eliminate lead hazards. But what that's going to look like, we don't know, because they didn't define what a lead hazard is. So that's going to be the next big battle in the regulatory process. What do you mean by a lead hazard? New York City has, on the other hand, has been one of the leaders in this, at least on paper, in terms of a government role. But there's always an awfully big disconnect between what the law says and how things actually play out. New York City banned the application of lead based paint in homes in 1960, so it was one of the first jurisdictions in the country. I think Baltimore was a little earlier, 1954 at least, the continued accumulation of this toxic substance in homes was going to end. Although there are certainly lots of evidence that lead paint continued to be used in New York City even after 1960, it was sold here in violation of the law, and eventually it was also banned to use in schools, but in violation of the New York City's own laws. For example, the old Board of Education continued to use industrial grid lead paint in schools until about 1980, but that was the first step, and that's what we called the Health Code was also amended to require the Health Department to go in and do an environmental inspection in homes where a child became lead poisoned. This is what we call secondary prevention. As I was saying before, it's using the kids to test whether there's lead there, but the damage from lead poisoning is essentially irreversible in children.
The developmental delays are never really restored. In the early days, the Health Department would issue an order telling the landlord, go fix it, and then the landlord would fold its arms and do nothing.
So in 1970, this city passed a law that said if the landlord is ordered to fix it and doesn't do it, then the Health Department has to send this over to what's now known as the Department of Housing Preservation Development, HPD. It had a different name back then, but that's the city's main housing code enforcement agent says, you go and fix it because we need to do something. This kid's in a hazardous environment. We can't leave them staying there. But again, this was all the secondary model in 1982, in part because of activism that started in the late sixty s and has kind of continued unabated through the present. The city council under passed a bill with a prime sponsor being the late council member Stanley Michaels, who later became a board member at We Act called Local Law One became Local Law One of 1983, not to be confused with the current law which is also called Local Law One, but it's just matter of chance that that happened.
And local law one was not very long. It was five paragraphs, and it basically said, if you have children under the age of seven in a rental property in a multiple dwelling in New York, the landlord shall remove or cover the lead paint. Period. And it also contained a statutory presumption that if it was peeling, then when HPD came and inspected, they could just presume that it was lead paint unless the landlord tested on their own and proved that it wasn't. So on paper it looked like a great law, but guess what? Nobody enforced it. I mean, the city was writing, I've done a chart of this and I don't remember the numbers exactly, but they were issuing maybe 25, 30 violations a year for violating this law, where we knew there were hundreds of thousands of units with children under seven with lead based paint. So in 1985, an organization was formed called the New York City Coalition and lead poisoning led by parents of lead poison, children health advocates from places like Montefior medical center, housing advocates, and they brought a lawsuit represented by my former colleague Lucy Billings and others against the city called New York City coalition to end lead poisoning versus Koch. And the goal of that lawsuit was to get adequate, timely, and safe enforcement of the law that on paper, looked like it should end the lead poisoning problem, but wasn't. And I'll just give you a sense of how this worked back in the day. I mean, if to get HPD to write a violation was a process, because you had to call and complain and you specifically had to know I have a concern because there's peeling paint and I have a child under. The age of seven and blah, blah, blah, blah. And maybe HPD would show up at some point, who knows when. And then they would write a violation. So listeners may think, oh, when you get a violation issued by HPD, that means someone does something. Just like if you get, say, a parking ticket or something like that. If you don't pay it, then they'll come in and pound your car. No, it doesn't work like that at all. Basically, the violations can just sit there forever unless the tenant or the agency takes some more affirmative action, usually by bringing a case in housing court to try to get a judge to order the landlord to do something. And the agency itself didn't have the resources to bring a lot of these cases and basically didn't bring any of them. And tenants rarely had either the skills or the legal assistance or the stamina to go to court 400 times and try to get through all the adjournments and eventually get an order from the judge telling the landlord to do it. And even then, the landlord might just ignore it. So then you have to keep going back to court so we would encounter these situations that were just so problematic. I'll give you an example.
One of my former clients, who in a long and interesting twist of fate, is now state senator for this area named Cordell Clear. She had a lot of peeling paint in her home after there was a fire and there was water damage, and she called HPD because of the damage in her apartment. She didn't know anything about lead, but her kid was about, I don't know, six months old or something like that, was not lead poison at that time, because we have the medical records. And HBD came in and saw peeling paint and wrote up fix appealing paint. But they didn't write the violation as lead paint. And as they later explained, and when we sued them, they said, well, the tenant didn't. Complain about lead paint, so we didn't write it up as lead paint. And so then the landlord had the super come in with a paint scraper and a power sander or whatever and try to fix the paint, which no one was talking about as being lead, and made a big mess. And then a few months later, her child was tested and found to be highly lead poisoned. Guess what? Because of the unsafe work that was done.
And so now the health department came in and said, oh, Houston, we've got a problem here. This place is full of lead paint. So we thought something would happen then, but nothing happened then. The family was moved to a shelter at Montefior Medical Center, a safe house, and they were there for well over a year, if I recall correctly, while we spent enormous amounts of time in court trying to get someone to do something. And eventually we got a judge to order the city to go in and fix it, which the city was resistant to doing. And this was like the typical tragedy that would happen. The law was on the books, but no one would do anything to make it enforceable. And it was a system that was not accessible to parents. And as now Senator Clear would say, she says, you know, I didn't know anything about know, but that wasn't my job. I mean, the city was coming and inspecting. How come they didn't recognize that this is an old house and there was a kid there, and all this peeling paint was potentially incredibly toxic. They're the ones who screwed up. And eventually my kid got lead poisoned. And we had so many cases like this that were kind of boiling up from our client intake. And that's why I said, like, the model for me of working in a legal services office really helped us kind of capture what was not working. So one of the early decisions we won in this class action was a requirement that one of the judges said, issued, saying it's not enough to tell the landlord, remove the lead paint if you don't tell them how to do it safely. And ordered the city to write regulations about safe work practices, which, in a way, when I look back on this, there really wasn't a lot of authority for the judge to do it. But it was the right thing to do, and the city dragged its heels over that. And we had to take the city back to court multiple times on this. In fact, the city was held in contempt of court no less than four times over various aspects of the court's orders to carry out various mandates, the last being in 1999, where the judge threatened to put the HPD commissioner in jail within 30 days if they didn't start complying.
So we kept winning all these victories in court, but we weren't really getting anywhere in terms of changing the game on the ground.
So we had this kind of failure of public law, of regulation really working to protect kids.
And the other side of the equation is what I call private law. In other words, lawsuits brought by private actors for lead poisoning, cases brought by victims of lead poisoning who would sue their landlords. And there was a major decision in 1995 called Juarez versus Wavecrest Management, and that was from the High Court of New York. And the Juarez case was a case where a kid was lead poisoned. And the defense propounded by the defendants in that case was, yeah, there's this law, but we didn't know there was lead. And unless the city first inspects our private rental dwelling and tells us there's lead, we have no obligation to do anything about lead. And to some extent, that might sound kind of off the wall, but the history of the development of real property law in this country comes from England. And the traditional, what they call common law concept was that if you lease a piece of property to somebody, you lease the farm to the farmer.
Once it's leased, the landlord no longer has access to the property, in fact can't enter it. Otherwise it would be trespassing. The owner still owns the property, but the control of the property is completely in the hands of the person who's leased it. So traditionally, that defense worked. In fact, it still worked in the rest of the state for many years and many other jurisdictions because the landlord would say, you can't make me liable for poisoning someone or for any kind of contact bad conduct unless I had notice of the hazard.
Yes, I had a duty to act, but only once I knew there was something that I needed to know. Right?
And we, meaning the New York City coalition that lead poisoning, put a friend of the court briefing on this, signed onto by many, many other organizations, including We Act, including many legislators from the city council and so forth. Saying this is just backwards. Because this is, in essence, creates an incentive for landlords not to look for lead hazards. Because once they look for it, then they're on notice and they're going to have to do something. And what the Court of Appeals did in this decision is they said, look, yes, there's this common law concept that owners don't have access. But the housing code in New York is very broad, and one of its provisions says that landlords have not only a right, but a duty to enter the premises at reasonable times to see whether it's in compliance with the housing code. And the lead law is part of the housing code. So, no, you can't use that defense here. If you know there's children there under the age of seven, you have an obligation to take reasonable measures to make sure they're not poisoned. This created an enormous uproar in the real estate industry, because up till then, proving these kinds of lead poisoning cases was very difficult because the landlord would always say, I don't know. I didn't know anything.
Now those cases kind of changed. It was really just a question of, was the child poisoned? And if so, how much is the damages going to be? Proving the landlord's liability once we established there was lead and the landlord didn't take reasonable steps to deal with, it was no longer an issue that had to be fought over. So by the late 90s, you had two converging forces coming down on city government. You had the administration under a guy named Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor, so called law and order mayor, whose housing commissioner was repeatedly held in contempt of court for not enforcing the lead law. And they were getting tired of this. And you had the real estate industry where landlords left and right were being sued and held accountable for damages for lead poison kids. And the upshot of this was the passage by the city council in basically about two or three weeks over the protests of anyone who had any intelligence about how about lead hazards. The passage of a law called Local Law 38 of 1999, pushed by then Speaker Peter Valone, that just drastically cut back on the extent of the lead poisoning prevention laws. It was basically a gift to the landlords. It protected landlords against liability. It protected the city because the city no longer had to enforce such a broad law. So what did we do? We sued over that. We dusted off that's probably a poor metaphor, but used the same state Environmental Quality Review Act to say the city just made policy over lead dust. Didn't even talk about lead dust, didn't analyze it. They needed to. And the failure to comply with the state law that requires environmental review when you're making policy that can affect the environment isn't failure. And it was kind of the argument we had used in the Williamsburg Bridge case a number of years before, and it was kind of an interesting and creative thing to do. I can't take credit for coming up with a colleague of mine named Suzanne Mate brainstorm this out. But the issue know, nobody thinks of the indoor environment as, quote, unquote, environment. Like, we think about environment as it's like trees and parks and mountains and streams. But the reality is the indoor environment is where we spend 95% of our time, and that environment can be very toxic. So that was one of the threshold issues was, well, is the inside of a house, is that environment, is that covered by the law?
That case went all the way up the court system, all the way up to the High Court of New York, the Court of Appeals, and in 2003, the court agreed and struck down the Peter Malone Local Law 38, saying there had been ineffective environmental review. Now we're back to local law one of 1983 again. But we understood well at that point that this was just buying us more time. But we really needed to come up with a much more comprehensive way to approach this. We had all these different orders from the court. We had learned an awful lot from our clients about all the ways that local law one hadn't worked. And we also started thinking about changing the dynamic a little bit, because the thinking that had gone into local law, the first local law one, and the thinking in general among many advocates, was, the only way to deal with lead paint is you need to completely remove all of it. And we got enormous pushback from that in the 90s, because, as people pointed out, doing that in every home in New York City is going to cost a fortune 2030, 40, $50,000, where the resources are that going to come from. And even with safe work practices, if they were followed, maybe it wouldn't create hazards. But if it was not done right and you abated improperly, you actually made the problem worse, because you take all that lead pain and without proper environmental controls, you get a lot of lead dust all over the place.
And the wars case had kind of pointed us in an interesting direction, because the court said, this is not a strict liability statute. They said, it's a statute of reasonableness. They said a landlord has to show they took reasonable steps under the circumstances to keep kids from being poisoned. So we said, Why don't we try to reframe the whole way that the city goes about this? The landlords are saying, don't make us abate all the lead paint. We know how to manage it. And we said, Fine, here's what the law said. The law had a long preamble where it said the city Council, I'm kind of quoting almost from memory, the city council recognizes that given the diversity of housing stock in New York, we cannot legislate a single maintenance practice and standard for every housing unit in New York because the housing is so varied.
But what we do think is that there is sufficient information out there now from federal guidance and various people in the field to allow owners to make reasonable decisions about how to manage lead based paint if they're not abating all of it. But it also said you can't sip being that there could be no peeling paint and that owners, when we were trying to deal with the problem in the Warris case, that the owner said well, I didn't necessarily know there were children in the home. And says, well, then you have to affirmatively find out if there are children in the home. And if you do, then you must inspect the dwelling at least once a year, and more often as necessary to make sure it's safe. So we're really taking the model from the warriors case and putting it right into statute. If you don't want to take it all out, find out if there's kids there, go and inspect it. If you think you can manage the dwelling without taking all the lead paint that's on you, but you need to make sure that it's at all times safe. Secondly, it built in specific requirements for safe work practices that the people who anybody who's disturbing paint that has lead or if you don't know if it's lead, you presume it's lead. Had to have a certain level of training, had to use certain work practices, and they had to do testing with a third party at the end of the job to make sure that the place was cleaned up and there was no lead dust there. That was the second piece of it. The third piece was to try to go after what everyone understood being the highest risk surfaces that even if intact, could create lead dust. And that's what we called friction surfaces, the lead paint on a door frame or a window frame, because even if the paint wasn't peeling, every time you open that window, the surfaces could abrade and create lead dust. The original plan for what became Local Law one of 2004 was this was going to be done in housing by the year 2007, I think. And there was huge pushback from the Bloomberg administration which said, oh, we're going to veto the law if you don't make it weaker. In the end, they vetoed it anyway to say, well, we'll do this at vacancy, because then it's safer to do it no one's in the home, and it's eventually going to get rid of all the lead on friction surfaces. But then we also built in lots of very specific mandates to deal with the problems, what we'd found from our clients. So one of the requirements is that if HPD goes into someone's home, they have to ask, are there children here, young children here? If the answer to that is yes, then HPD has to do an inspection for lead, regardless of whether the tenant had called the complaint about heat or a leaky faucet or something. That alone increased the number of violations HPD issued in the first year of the law by like 400, 500%. So we had lost all these opportunities to do good public health by having, when HPD was inspecting people's homes, they were just ignoring this obvious public health hazard. I mean, it's funny, at a hearing a year or so later, one of the assistant HPD commissioners, who we greatly disliked, was complaining. He says, the law is not working. We have four or 500% more lead violations than we did before. And it's like, Harold, they were all there. You're just finding them. It's not like all of a sudden the problem got worse. You're just looking for them, right?
And likewise, if you call three one one to complain about conditions in your apartment, the operators are required to ask, do you have any kids? How old are they? Okay, do you have any peeling paint? Boom. It turns into a lead inspection. So we did a better job of inspecting for it. And then we also tried to address this problem of, like, these violations would just get issued and then just sit there like a dead log for years until someone did something. So it built into the law a series of timetables. It's like HPD has to inspect within ten days of a complaint that could be led. They have to issue a violation within ten days, and if the landlord doesn't fix it within a certain period of time, then the city has to come in and fix it, and then they can build the landlord or put a lien on the building or whatever. But one thing we didn't want is for them to find these violations and then for them to just sit there forever. I mean, that was, like, completely defeating the purpose anyway. That was in large part the genesis and the framework of Local Law One of 2004. It was not anymore a full abatement statute, but it did mandate that housing be maintained safe at all times. So there was still the liability attached if you didn't meet these standards. And there was a requirement that there be timely enforcement by the city and that there be safe work practices.
So we thought our work would be done, but it's not.
[01:18:33] Speaker B: Here we are on this podcast talking about it right now.
[01:18:36] Speaker C: Right?
[01:18:36] Speaker A: Yeah. So given all those things that you kind of mentioned, now we're at the stage where Local Law One of 2004 exists. It's on the books, and like we said, we're still working on this issue of lead exposure, as concisely as you could put it. What would you say is kind of the landscape that we sit in now in terms of what we're still advocating for? What are some of maybe the top one or two things that you feel like we are still trying to address to really get rid of the tissue of childhood blood exposure in New York?
[01:19:08] Speaker C: Well, I can do the glass half full or half empty framework here.
The reality is the numbers of children at elevated blood levels has dramatically dropped in New York, far faster in New York City than the rest of the state. How much of that is due to local Law one, as opposed to other factors, know the gentrification that's getting homes remodeled?
Know other factors? I don't know. But certainly aspects of it have worked better. I mean, we in legal services attorneys. We used to have to go to these court forever and try to fight it out. I don't do those cases anymore. I wrote myself out of the business of having to take landlords to court because now the city has to deal with it. So that part of it, I thought, worked very well, but we began to look at again what was happening on the ground. I would ask clients who came into the office, has a landlord inspected your apartment for lead? Because one of the requirements, the local law one, is not only inspect it at least once a year, they produce a written report about it, keep that for ten years, give it to the tenant. No one was doing it. No one had ever seen one of these reports. And the second piece of it was the requirements for safe work practices.
And again, the way that local law one was drafted, it was a very broad requirement. It required these safe work practices. Anytime you're doing work that's disturbing lead paint or paint of unknown lead content in a dwelling with young children in it, regardless of what the intent was, regardless of whether the landlord says, I'm coming in here to abate or I'm coming in here to redecorate the dust, doesn't know the difference. It poisons a child just as effectively, regardless of the intent. You may think intent sounds like a really strange term, but on federal law, there are very strict requirements about lead abatement in the safe work practices you have to use. But those only apply if a landlord is intending to do permanent removal and correction of lead paint. If you call it something else, then you don't have to use these safe work practices. So it's a totally state of mind requirement. But New York City, we kind of sidestepped that. We said, no, you have to do this. You have to use qualified people. You have to do safe dust wipe tests afterwards, and those results have to be disclosed to the tenant. And those are paper records that have to be disclosed and kept and provided to incoming tenants. None of that seemed to be happening.
We also began to suspect and looked at what is the city doing to enforce any of these things? Is the city, for example, going after landlords who fail to do these annual?
I mean, we thought that was somewhat of a no brainer. I mean, the city only has a few hundred inspectors. There's no way the city can inspect the hundreds of thousands of units in older housing stock with kids in them. In New York, the city can't do that. And it shouldn't even be the city's job that ends up becoming a public responsibility. It should be the owner's responsibility. Right? We put it into the law, you inspect your dwelling, or was the city doing anything about enforcing this requirement that at vacancy these friction surfaces be abated? Well, I started looking at the data on this, and Reuters news organization as well, did their study and looked at the records of violations issued by HPD. And of course, now these days, we have this just massive amount of data you can look at online that you can really do some amazing analysis on it. And we found, like the city, in the first 15 years after local law, one of four went into effect, had issued maybe two or three violations for failing to do annual inspections, and two or three violations for failing to do abatement at Vacancy. And coincidentally, all of those happened to be cases where I had taken the landlord in the city to court. And as I indicated, at some point, I wanted to retire. And I felt like I couldn't be the only one enforcing local law one, the city had to enforce it. It's their law.
So the various members of the coalition came together and put out a report around 2019 or so called lead Loopholes We Act was one of the groups on that and Northern Manhattan and others. And it kind of put together our analysis about like, look, these are the things that are working on local law one, but these are the things that are not. And we need to tighten this. If HPD is going to take this sort of hands off approach, then we're going to have to keep tinkering with the law and spell it out like, you must take certain steps to make sure the law is enforced. So a number of amendments came out in the last few years that were largely drafted by the advocates to try to address this. For example, they started requiring the city had to audit a certain number of landlords each year to find out what are they doing about annual inspections. And guess what? They discovered that no one was doing it, so they started issuing lots of violations for know. The city had to start figuring out a way to figure out are landlords doing these required abatements of friction surfaces at vacancy. And we got pushback from HPD about this. They said, well, how do we know? Because that was only a requirement if there's been a change of tenancy after the law went into effect in four. But we don't know when the tenants moved in. I said, well, why don't you ask them when you inspect?
Oh, so we wrote that into the statute as well. That when HPD goes in. One of the things they have to do when they're doing inspection is ask if the family moved in after August 3 of 2004. And if the answer is yes, then all those friction surfaces should have been abated. So the city will have to test those surfaces too. And if there's lead there, then they have to issue a violation for that. It didn't seem like rocket science, but sometimes it feels like you're dealing with a recalcit trial, that you have to kind of really spell this thing out in detail. And we've been attempting to improve the safe work practices enforcement.
One of the issues that we've long struggled with around the dilemma of lead poisoning in New York is the fact that it tended to be divided amongst various agencies that didn't necessarily interact particularly well with each other and would blame each other for the failures as opposed to coming together in.
I think the term we use these days is breaking down the silos and come up with a cohesive plan for dealing with this. And one of the agencies is the Department of Buildings, which doesn't do housing code enforcement, but they do have the responsibility for issuing construction permits when you're doing renovation.
And those permits, for example, require that the applicant indicate whether there's asbestos in the property, and if so, what are you doing about it? And we kept saying, well, why not ask them about lead? Too well, we don't want to do that because that's not our department. And we said, well, it should be. So one of the changes we got in is that if you apply for a permit to do construction, you have to indicate, is this a property that may have lead paint or does have lead paint? And if so, what are you doing to make sure the people who are doing the work are qualified to do this? What measures are you taking to protect the tenants? And then we also gave the Department of Buildings the ability and the authority to issue stop work orders if their inspectors saw unsafe work going on, because up till then, they said, well, that's not our department. That's the Health Department or HPD, but don't look to us. So, again, we've been trying to figure out how to really effectively use these agencies to work together more closely.
[01:27:32] Speaker A: If anything, I've taken away from all the things that you've kind of shared with us today is that this issue, what seems like should be a pretty straightforward issue of preventing childhood lead exposure. Paints it seems straightforward, is incredibly complex, and maybe to some extent shouldn't be it shouldn't be as complicated as it is if kind of folks did the things that were seemingly obvious about asking these questions that you had to require them to ask and do all this process. But it kind of indicates to me that there is a reason for people to be paying attention, to know what they can expect and what they should be expecting and making sure that the agencies and landlords that are supposed to be doing this work, that they're keeping a close eye. Because it seems like any chance anyone has gotten to not do the work of testing and reporting and abating, it hasn't gotten done until it's been kind of under the microscope of surveillance. So all the more reason for folks to kind of really be paying attention, especially if they personally have children or know people who have children. And I find that very motivating for folks who are hurt in the city and who maybe haven't been paying attention, who maybe feel like, oh, wow, maybe maybe I should be paying attention to this. So, Lonnie, other thoughts that you had? I know that we're kind of getting near the end of our time. So I wanted to start kind of hearing some of our kind of closing.
[01:28:55] Speaker B: Thoughts if you, you know, working with the New York City coalition in lead poisoning. So far, since I've been here at WeAct, I've heard parts of these different things, right, these different moments in time in various ways. But it's very interesting to kind of just sit and hear the entire story, almost kind of start to where we are now. Not to finish because it's not over. But one of my questions is kind of going into this. It seems like this is an issue that it's almost like to solve. It is like pulling teeth with someone's bare hands. And my question to you is, and I don't know if you can answer this in a certain way who's the villain in this story? Because it seems like there's a lot of people, a lot of things going on. But who's really to blame if there is someone to blame?
[01:29:46] Speaker C: Well, I mean, maybe on the macro level you could blame the paint industry and the lead industry, which this is one of these things like asbestos or cigarettes. It's like it was well known within the industry that this was really toxic and yet they kept selling this stuff. And there have been attempts in a lot of jurisdictions to try to sue and hold accountable the various paint companies for their role in this, including in New York City. And those efforts largely failed for reasons that are too complex to get into in the time we have. There has been some successful litigation recently in California against them. But at the end of the day, where are you going to find the resources to deal with this is the bigger issue. But on a local level, one of the things we always kept thinking when we were drafting local law, one of four is like, look, there's probably 300,000 units of older housing stock with rental housing with kids and young kids them. But they're not all being lead poisoned. Obviously, most landlords understand how to maintain their property and not poison their occupants. So we had to think about how do you draft a law that kind of separates out the good landlords and the bad landlords? And you need to have a regime that says, fine, if you take care of your property, you're off the hook. But if you're not, then the book gets thrown at you. Deal for your failures to prevent the kids from being led poison.
So certainly the real estate industry was one of our biggest antagonists in the fights at the city council level. I mean, the very idea that issues and public health policy or public or housing policy could be promulgated based upon the needs and interests of basically poor people. Because the reality is the kids who are being affected are predominantly poor kids of color. They're not. Usually the ones who make public policy in New York. They don't give to Pac funds. They don't vote. But early on I learned the maxim from a colleague. He know there's only two things politicians understand money and pain and the kids. Our clients weren't the ones who were going to be paying the legislators for their reelections, but we did focus a lot on the pain and we tried to make this an issue that really affected the electability of political office holders in New York City. I mean the city council election and in 2001, in the aftermath of the Peter Malone bill, for example, all kinds of people ran for city council, for mayor, for borough president and would slam their opponents for having voted to poison children, for having sponsored the VELone law. And we kind of went along for the ride. It was like I'd be contacted how did this person vote? And it's like, well, they voted for the know. So we kind of turned it into a fight of who wants to stand up on this issue and who doesn't? But again, getting back to it, I mean the real estate industry had always completely controlled the city council on policy matters. And I saw the enactment of local law, one which took the creation of an enormous coalition of actors and advocates from a broad spectrum of groups. I mean not just environmental advocates, but public health advocates and housing advocates and racial justice advocates and disability rights advocates and who all looked at this issue and said and education advocates. This is a cross cutting issue. I think the other actor in this obviously is government but it's, I think, always tempting to kind of think of government as a monolith and it's not.
It's complex organizations with lots of people pushing in different directions. And I think advocates from the outside can make an enormous difference in pushing the people within agencies who want to do the right thing, to be able to do it and to get them the resources they need. And there are a lot of good people in government who are working on this who could not do the work that they do, had not the actions that advocates took over the years to really push them to do better. They got more funding. They got pushback from they were able to withstand the people from the budget side of government saying we don't really need to spend money on this. And it's like, well yeah, we do because we're going to get sued. I named three different actors here.
[01:35:01] Speaker B: I appreciate that.
[01:35:02] Speaker C: Yeah.
[01:35:03] Speaker B: But I like that kind of closing out of basically saying how important advocates are and how much they can do and move policymakers.
[01:35:13] Speaker C: Absolutely. Again, I mean I became a lawyer because I was an activist and I think there's a real tendency for lawyers to become so in love with their pen or their word processor and think that we can write something magical on a piece of paper, a great brief, and things will change. And it's like, that's not how things work at all. It's all about we can be there and help manipulate the levers of power by drafting things. But political change rarely happens because people think government think it's the right thing to do. It comes because you create the political force where government has to do what it's going to do. And the struggle over lead poisoning was very much that we would win all these battles in court, but we wouldn't get anywhere. We got hammered in 99 when the Valon Law went through. So we realized we're not doing the kind of organizing we need to do. It's only going to happen by empowering and particularly empowering our clients to figure out how to advocate on this and create the political will for it to go forward.
[01:36:27] Speaker A: And I can't think of a better plug than that to direct people into working with organizations like us, like we act for environmental justice and just getting involved with this work as advocates. So thank you so much, Matthew. We appreciate your really comprehensive review of your work and just the landscape of the work around lead at city, state and federal level. So thank you so much for joining us again, and we appreciate you making time to be on the show.
[01:36:51] Speaker C: And thanks to Weak for all its continuing work on this, the late, great Cecil Corbin. Mark was one of my colleagues in this early on, and he was right in the room with us back when we were making the final push to get local law One through. And we really miss his advocacy, but we're glad to see that Weak has continued to carry the torch on this.
[01:37:14] Speaker B: Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, make sure to rate and review the show on whatever platform you listen on. If you have thoughts about the show, we encourage you to reach out to us with your thoughts and suggestions at [email protected]
[01:37:27] Speaker A: We also just launched a new poll where you can tell us what you want to hear about on Uptown Chats next year. So in 2024, for all of our listeners on Spotify, you can access that poll directly in the app. Just go to this show episode, click on the show page, and you can scroll down to the poll right there. Otherwise, if you listen to this podcast on any other platforms, you can find the poll on our [email protected]
[01:37:54] Speaker B: You can also check out WeAct on Facebook at weactfordj. That's W-E-A-C-T-F-O-R-E-J instagram twitter and YouTube at weactfordj. That's W-E-A-C-T number four. EJ. And check out our website, weact.org, for more information about environmental justice.
[01:38:13] Speaker A: All right, thanks so much for listening, and until next time, look out for lead.
[01:38:19] Speaker D: You bing.