NYC Officials Admit They Ignored Lead Poisoning Issues

Although over 800 children in City housing projects tested positive for potentially lethal lead levels, city officials did not follow-up on the results.

In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered lead exposure standards from 10 micrograms to 5 micrograms. But officials with the city health department and New York City Housing Authority continued to use the old standard. So, the City government did nothing to help these families. Now that attention focused on the problem, “The Health Department has already begun to conduct these investigations for children in public housing and will begin implementing beyond that by the end of the year,” according to a press release. Officials also bragged that they had reduced lead levels by 90 percent since 2005. But that simply means that the problem was much more widespread than originally believed.

After victims filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, Mayor Bill DeBlasio almost immediately ordered the NYCHA to spend an additional $2.2 billion to clean up the lead poisoning problem.


Lead Poisoning in New York

This metal is cheap and plentiful, so building contactors used it as much as possible. Their lobbyists fought hard to keep lead pipes legal for as long as possible. Largely as a result of their efforts, Congress did not ban lead plumbing until 1986. That’s almost a decade after lawmakers ordered lead to be removed from paint. Furthermore, the pipe ban came almost two decades after President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. That act lowered lead levels in the atmosphere by about 90 percent.

So, it’s not too surprising that NYC officials were slow to act on concerns of lead poisoning. Lawmakers have known for years that this heavy metal is harmful. Yet for some reason, plumbing supplies were immune from regulation years after other measures took effect. A few of these harms include:

  • Lower IQ: Lead is chemically similar to calcium, so the body absorbs lead quickly, believing it is a nutrient. But lead is, in fact, a rather powerful neurotoxin which delays both nervous system and brain development. This double whammy practically ensures that children exposed to lead will do poorly in school and in life.
  • Infertility: Lead affects both the gonads and the hormones. Lead also reduces sperm count. Perhaps most disturbingly, research indicates that exposure of less than 5 micrograms may cause these lifelong and irreversible injuries.
  • Encephalopathy: The same neurotoxin that lowers IQ also causes encephalopathy in many cases. Encephalopathy is an umbrella term for a variety of serious cognitive disorders. In addition to mental symptoms, such as memory loss, personality changes, and inability to solve even basic problems, many of these victims suffer from physical symptoms, like tremors and seizures.

Based on dangers like these, and the scholarly research behind these conclusions, the federal government ordered American industries to reduce lead air emissions to 0.15 micrograms by January 2017. That’s ten times lower than the limits set in the Clean Air Act.


What to Do About Lead Poisoning

These problems are certainly not unique to a few apartment complexes in New York City. In fact, the government estimates that some four million households have dangerously high lead levels in their water or air.

The twenty-five year gap between the 1971 Clean Air Act and 1986 lead plumbing ban clearly shows that legislative action is, by no means, a quick solution. For remedies like these, victims must turn to the courts. It’s no coincidence that Mayor DeBlasio only approved additional lead remediation funds after victims filed a federal lawsuit.Such lawsuits against governments are often effective. Rather than go through expensive litigation, City Halls around the country often take action. However, these kinds of suits are rather easy to defend, should the city choose that route. New York has a rather strong sovereign immunity law that is difficult to overcome.

So, Napoli Law attorneys came up with a better idea. Hunter Shkolnik is Co-Liaison Counsel in the Flint Water Crisis Litigation. Since Michigan’s sovereign immunity law is a lot like New York’s, Hunter and his team took legal action against the engineering firms that designed and built Flint’s water supply infrastructure. Private companies do not have the same kind of immunity. Furthermore, they cannot claim that they had no input over the types of materials used and other nuts-and-bolts kinds of things. Municipal governments have made these types of arguments in the past, and they will do so again.

Damages in environmental litigation cases usually include compensation for both economic losses, such as the educational and therapeutic supplements which lead-exposed kids need. This compensation also includes money for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment in life. Finally, many juries award substantial punitive damages in these kinds of cases. This additional money is available if there is clear and convincing evidence of excessively reckless conduct.

Lead pipes poison children in New York City and other places throughout the country. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik, PLLC. We handle environmental litigation cases on a nationwide basis.