Rochester’s lead law spurs success; Toledo tries similar effort
by: Lauren Lindstrom
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — At the end of a hours-long meeting that ran late into the night, city council members in Rochester unanimously voted in December, 2005, to adopt a controversial and novel ordinance aimed at reducing the number of children poisoned by lead in the city.
Now more than a decade and 141,000 inspections later, the number of children tested with lead poisoning in Rochester is less than a third of what it was the year the law passed.
“All of us feel a sense of ownership of this, that we did this together,” said Wade Norwood, whose last act in his 15-year tenure on Rochester council was to ensure the lead ordinance passed. “This was taking the city into uncharted territory.”
Rochester’s lead law has served as a model for health and environmental researchers across the country, as well as municipalities looking for a model to follow, including Toledo.
A city of about 210,000 in upstate New York, Rochester had more than 1,000 children test positive with lead poisoning in 2003, two years before the ordinance passed. County health officials there identified children with blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or greater, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s level of concern at the time.
In Lucas County in 2015, there were 285 children with confirmed lead levels at or above the CDC’s current poisoning threshold of five micrograms or greater, a level that was revised after researchers determined lead exposure has caused damage in smaller quantities than previously known. Another 211 children tested with preliminary elevated levels, but did not receive a second confirmatory test.
Efforts by local health and advocacy groups prompted Toledo City Council to approve in August, 2016, a first-in-Ohio lead ordinance requiring landlords of older rental properties to test for lead, legislation modeled after Rochester.
Among the myriad health issues associated with lead poisoning according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: damage to a child’s brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems.
Rochester’s Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, along with health and political officials, based their city’s law on prevention.
“Once a kid has lead in their blood, it affects how their bodies and brains develop; you can’t readily undo that damage. We’re really focused on preventing exposure in the first place,” said Katrina Korfmacher, an associate professor in the department of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center and a member of the coalition since 2001.
“To do that, you really need policy change because we as a society allowed lead to be painted all over our older housing stock.” she said. “It’s not the fault of the people who live there now; it’s not the fault of the people who own the housing now; it’s a problem we all allowed to happen. But in order to keep that lead from getting into kids, we need to maintain housing in good condition so the paint is intact, so that you don’t have lead dust on the floors so it can get in kids’ mouths.”
Much like changes in laws and practices that now require seat belts or discourage smoking while pregnant, a better scientific understanding of lead’s danger should prompt policy change, said coalition member Elizabeth McDade, who is also program coordinator for the Rochester Safe and Efficient Homes Initiative.
“Our law was based upon the idea that you can’t rent a property, a home to children that has a neurotoxin in it,” she said. “You can’t open a restaurant that has a bubbling cauldron of biohazard in the middle of the restaurant floor, they won’t let you do that. We know what the [lead] issue is, we know how to fix it, let’s do that.”