On the windows and doors of older homes lurks a substance that can lead to intellectual disabilities, comas and death in high enough concentrations: lead. And while lead poisoning has gained national attention with stories like the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, it’s an issue that exists right here in Syracuse.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rejected the city of Syracuse’s grant application for lead paint removal in the city earlier this month. The $2.9 million grant would have restarted a 20-year program that ended last year because HUD cut funding over accusations of mismanagement by Syracuse employees. It’s concerning that Syracuse, a city with the highest percentage of children with lead poisoning, according to a recent study by Journal of Pediatrics, is currently without federal funding to address the issue. To make matters worse, the quarrelling between Syracuse’s elected officials, simply for the sake of partisanship, does little to address this issue. Instead of recognizing the importance of lead abatement in Syracuse, our leading politicians have let their parties get in the way of solutions — a behavior that only hurts the city in the long run.
In response to the federal funding being cut, Democratic Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and United States Rep. John Katko (R-Syracuse) have been sniping at each other in the press. Miner admitted to her lack of a working relationship with Katko, telling Syracuse.com that she has “not had one governmental interaction” with Katko and bemoaned that the congressman did not reach out. A Katko spokesperson responded that the congressman had sent five letters of support for lead abatement and offered assistance on the grant application. Katko has said he would aid in the fight for the grant money and said that he would not let this dispute affect the citizens of Syracuse. When it comes down to it, the city cannot move forward without funding: something Miner and Katko should be fighting for side-by-side, regardless of their petty quarrels. It’s hard to say if better communication between Miner and Katko — or any at all, for that matter — would have improved Syracuse’s grant money prospects or if the mismanagement accusations still would have stopped the lead paint removal in its tracks. Either way, the lack of cooperation between the city’s highest local elected official and its representative in the federal government certainly doesn’t help the situation. It also raises questions over what other issues have been mishandled due to their strained relationship. Still, the back-and-forth between Miner and Katko only distracts from the issue at hand, which is that Syracuse’s children have the highest blood lead levels in the country. Of those tested, 40.1 percent show high levels of lead while 16 percent showing very high levels, according to a study of data from 2009 to 2015 in the Journal of Pediatrics. Even levels that were thought to be acceptable can have lasting effects, including learning and behavioral challenges.
By comparison, the New York state average for high levels of blood lead is 2.9 percent and the national average is 3 percent. While coma and death are the most extreme results, the World Health Organization maintains that “there is no known safe blood lead concentration.” For the residents and community leaders of Syracuse, this idea should underscore the importance of protecting individuals, especially children, from lead poisoning in any and all forms. Indeed, the lead situation in Syracuse has similarities to the ongoing situation in Flint, Michigan, where a change in the source of drinking water and a lack of preventative measures resulted in a dangerous increase in blood lead levels for residents. There is one key difference: while Flint officials kept this vital information from citizens, the abundance of lead in Syracuse’s homes is public knowledge. And despite their bickering, Miner and Katko openly acknowledge the problem. Still, the results are the same. Even without information being hidden from the public, predominately low-income individuals in Syracuse are being subjected to a human rights violation in our own backyard. In today’s political climate, where Republicans and Democrats are as polarized as ever, it is important to remember the tangible effects that government has on everyday life. And when regional efforts fall short, federal tax dollars can be a crucial source of relief for communities that are underfunded and underrepresented. Of course, no societal issue can be solved just by throwing money at the problem. And charges of mismanagement should be taken seriously, as the money wasted should have gone to those truly in need. Still, the most straightforward and effective way to prevent this type of lead poisoning is through replacing paint, windows and doors, something that simply requires money. Politicians have to work together to fix the hard-hitting issues, but in order to get there, they have to see beyond their party lines.
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