50 years ago, the basic facts were known: lead poisoning of young children caused lifelong physical and developmental delays, stunting intellectual growth and affecting cardiovascular, hormone and immune systems, and a frequent pathway of lead into poisoned children was paint used where they lived, paint whose chips or dust could be easily ingested.
I remember reporting, in the late 1960s, stories about kids in New York City Public Housing with lead poisoning, and the latest medical miracles for treating them.
I remember the creation, in 1970, of The New York City Bureau of Lead Poisoning Control, one of the first and still the largest lead-poisoning prevention program in the country.
I remember when, in 1978, the use of lead-based paint was banned from all public housing, in NYC and across the country.
Still, in the 80s and the 90s I did stories about kids with lead poisoning in Baltimore and Boston and Providence and Washington DC. And the stories were always the same, lead paint in old buildings was robbing children of their health and mental capacities, in spite of medical treatments that could and did save a lucky portion of them. Frequently, the victims lived in public housing.
State and Federal legislature passed new laws, and State and Federal Health Departments set tighter standards.
Alas, for years, and in one case, for decades, neither the laws nor the standards were rigorously enforced. One example: HUD was supposed to make annual reports to Congress on the lead poisoning problem. HUD stopped reporting in 1997, and if anyone even noticed, no one cared.
In New York City, the Housing Authority was supposed to report to HUD on lead poisoning. The city admits it failed to do so from 2012 to 2016 and lied about it.
Among the things that went un-reported, the City Health Department now admits that 820 New York children younger than 6 were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood between 2012 and 2016.
Also unreported till now — what did the Health Department did about those 820 kids under 6? They sent letters home to their parents and medical providers.
What didn’t they do? They didn’t inspect the apartments the children lived in. They didn’t investigate how the kids got poisoned. They didn’t prevent further exposures to those, and other children.
As part of a Federal civil suit, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio has pledged $1.2 billion over the next 5 years to do a better job of finding, treating and protecting children overexposed to lead. Unfortunately, there are a lot of children whose losses can’t be mitigated by NYC’s make-up spending.
But lead-poisoned children are not just a NYC, not just a big city problem. It’s a problem in Cairo, Illinois, population 2549. It was a problem 45 years ago when reporter Paul Good wrote about the “chipping paint, roaches, rats, bad plumbing, cracked ceilings and walls” of apartments in public housing in Southern Illinois.”
And it’s still a problem today? The Alexander County Housing Authority, based in Cairo, is facing a fraud complaint filed by HUD, alleging that their monitoring and mitigation of lead paint hazards was inadequate
This intentional neglect damaged dozens of innocent children and contributed to the deterioration of the housing under their management. Neglect and inadequacy led to a HUD takeover of the local authority. And that may lead, not to better homes and health care, but to the death of the town of Cairo, and its smaller neighboring village, Thebes.
Molly Parker is an investigative reporter at The Southern Illinoisan, a newspaper based in Carbondale, IL. She has spent the past three years investigating the housing crisis in our region, and is spending the year partnering with ProPublica and ProPublica Illinois to do even more reporting on this.