Family Seeking Refuge Finds Hidden Danger in Safe Haven
Bea Lea, a new American and mother of three young children, didn’t expect to be fighting another battle here in the United States when she fled her native country of Congo. Her eyes have seen a lot, including the deaths of her father and brother, but nothing prepared her for what the family would endure shortly after they moved into their first home on the Northside of Syracuse.
At first glance, her oldest son, George, age three, is an outgoing, vivacious toddler trying to keep up with his siblings. However, underneath the smiles and countless conversations he tries to convey is a young boy who has already been robbed of his childhood.
Lea doesn’t remember the exact day George fell violently ill, but she said she remembers being at a standstill, scared of the sudden sickness George was exhibiting. Extreme bouts of diarrhea and uncontrolled vomiting consumed him. Frightened, Lea took him to the hospital where he was later found to have a blood lead level of 32 micrograms per deciliter.
“I kept saying ‘what is lead?’ to the doctor,” said Lea. “I was confused because in my country we don’t have lead.”
The Federal Government banned the use of lead paint in 1978. But the poisoned paint still lingers in walls, doors and porches in numerous Syracuse homes. About 91 percent of homes in Syracuse were built before 1980, according to the U.S. Census.
George has already gone through three very painful medical procedures known as Chelation Therapy. The procedure itself involves the administration of chelating agents to remove heavy metals from the body. When Lea took her son back to the hospital for a check-up, it had been discovered that George’s blood lead level had risen to 38 and then again to 42 micrograms per deciliter.
“After Legal Services of Central New York educated me on lead in my home, I went back to the doctors and said, ‘I believe my baby is going to die” said Lea. “‘And if my baby dies, you’re going to have to kill me, too, so you need to help me get out of this home.’”
Since the move, Lea says that her son’s blood lead levels are slowly coming down.
“New Americans come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their children,” said Lea. “We are walking right into a new danger in a place we thought would provide us safety.”
Lea has been unable to work because of the constant care that George requires. She expresses that a part of her identity has been lost in all of this, too. George is not currently enrolled in school because of his health.
“Imagine being told your child will never be smart again,” said Lea. “Knowing that your child was born healthy and smiling and he is now changed forever.”
Lea says she wants people to be held accountable for their actions and the government to take measurable steps to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen in Syracuse.
“We need to talk to the government and really do something,” she said. “The landlords of these homes already know that their properties have a problem with lead. If something is done we can put an end to this.”
It is time to eradicate childhood lead poisoning in Syracuse for good.
Together, we can do better for our children.
October 24, 2018 (Syracuse, NY) - The Central New York Community Foundation announced today that it will be investing more than $2 million over four years to help end childhood lead poisoning in Syracuse. Its new LeadSafeCNY initiative will fund a variety of approaches to address the region’s alarming childhood lead poisoning rates. According to the Onondaga County Health Department, more than 11 percent of Syracuse children tested in 2017 were shown to have elevated blood lead levels.
The initiative’s first grants are going to support new housing construction, existing home renovations, community outreach and training and workforce development, totaling $439,750. Among the grants are $150,000 to Home HeadQuarters to pilot a window and exterior door replacement program, $1,000 to PEACE, Inc. to refer applicants to the new Home HeadQuarters replacement program, $150,000 to Housing Visions Unlimited to construct new affordable rental apartments, $43,750 to the Greater Syracuse Land Bank to conduct lead inspections of its properties, $20,000 to Home HeadQuarters to offer EPA certified workforce lead removal training and $30,000 to Tomorrows Neighborhoods Today and Home HeadQuarters to educate residents on the importance of lead testing and remediation. View all of the grants.
“I applaud the Community Foundation’s data-driven approach to coordinating community partners in an effort to reduce blood lead levels in children and families,” said Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. “These investments will increase the number of lead-safe homes in the city, especially in areas where there is the highest concentration of children at risk of elevated lead levels. Building lead-safe, affordable housing, providing workforce opportunities and collaborating on community awareness around lead poisoning are all objectives in line with the city’s plans and objectives.”
The Community Foundation will focus its initial efforts in and near two Syracuse census tracts that were found in 2017 to have the highest blood lead levels in children. The first is tract 23, which is located just north of Interstate 690 between Pearl and Lodi streets. Here, more than 21 percent of children tested were shown to have elevated lead levels. Large refugee communities live in this neighborhood, which boasts a 29 percent foreign born population.
Census tract 54 is located in the Brighton neighborhood of Syracuse’s Southside and includes the immediate area around the Beauchamp Library. Here, a striking 46 percent of residents live below the poverty line. In this region, more than 24 percent of children tested had elevated lead levels. This blood lead level data was provided by the Onondaga County Health Department.
“We are grateful to the health department for making this data set available to us because it allows those organizing around this issue to focus their efforts where it is needed the most,” said Frank Ridzi, vice president, community investment at the Community Foundation. “By annually analyzing this information, we’ll be able to measure our effectiveness over time.”
In an Action Statement published on its website, the Community Foundation states that it is taking action now because “lead poisoning is entirely preventable,” yet it currently hinders children’s ability to enter the classroom ready to learn.
“The effects lead has on the mind and body undermine all community efforts to increase literacy rates, encourage high school completion and mentor our young people into successful careers,” said Peter Dunn, Community Foundation president and CEO. “Lead poisoning is preventable, which makes this a social, economic and environmental injustice that is simply unacceptable to continue.”
Elevated blood lead levels in young children have been found to cause reduced brain function, impacting the skills needed for academic success, physical activity and social interaction. It can lead to a higher likelihood of ADHD diagnosis, absenteeism, criminal behavior, violence and suicide.
Lead is a toxin that affects the brain, nervous system and multiple organs in the human body. Children under the age of six and pregnant women living in homes that have chipping, flaking and peeling paint are most susceptible. Lead paint chips tend to have a sweet flavor when eaten, making them enticing to young children. Another common source of ingestion is the inhalation of dust particles in the air from the friction of painted surfaces when windows, doors and cabinets are opened and closed.
Syracuse’s aging housing stock is much to blame for the high rates of elevated lead levels in resident children. More than 90 percent of the city’s occupied units were built before lead paint was federally banned from use in 1978.
A number of the Community Foundation’s first LeadSafeCNY grants are in support of strategies outlined in Get the Lead Out: Lead Poisoning Prevention Plan, produced by the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative Greater Syracuse (GHHI). The plan describes actions that can be taken to decrease exposure to lead hazards, protect at-risk populations and encourage cross-program coordination.
“GHHI, along with its many community partners, the Onondaga County Health Department and concerned residents, have been working together for some time to address the issue of lead poisoning in Syracuse,” said Dunn. “We are looking forward to boosting their efforts for even greater impact.”
October 21-27 marks National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. The campaign, spearheaded by the Centers of Disease Control, aims to raise awareness to reduce childhood exposure to lead and encourage implementation of local activities and events in target communities.
About the Central New York Community Foundation
The Central New York Community Foundation was established in 1927 to serve as a permanent community endowment built by the gifts and charitable legacies of individuals, families and businesses for the betterment of the region. It is the largest charitable foundation in Central New York with assets of more than $272 million. It has invested more than $190 million in community improvement projects since its inception. As a grantmaker, civic leader, convener and sponsor of special initiatives, the Community Foundation strives to strengthen local nonprofits, encourage better understanding of the region and address the most critical issues of our time. Its vision is to create a vibrant Central New York community that provides opportunity for everyone and builds a hopeful, prosperous region for future generations.