National News

Tests Showed Children Were Exposed to Lead. The Official Response: Challenge the Tests

Posted November 18, 2018 6:11 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Mikaila Bonaparte has spent her entire life under the roof of the New York City Housing Authority, the oldest and largest public housing system in the country, where as a toddler she nibbled on paint chips that flaked to the floor. In summer 2016, when she was not quite 3 years old, a test by her doctor showed she had lead in her blood at levels rarely seen in modern New York.

A retest two days later revealed an even higher level, one more commonly found in factory or construction workers and, in some cases, enough to cause irreversible brain damage.

Within two weeks, a city health inspector visited the two Brooklyn public housing apartments where Mikaila spent her time — her mother’s in the Tompkins Houses; her grandmother’s in the Gowanus Houses — to look for the source of the lead exposure, records show. The inspector, wielding a hand-held device that can detect lead through multiple layers of paint, found the dangerous heavy metal in both homes. The Health Department ordered the Housing Authority to fix the problems.

The discovery spurred the Housing Authority to action: It challenged the results.

Rather than remove or cover the lead, the Housing Authority dispatched its own inspector who used a different test, documents show. The agency insisted that however Mikaila was poisoned, there was no lead in her apartments.

Entrusted as the landlord to 400,000 people, the Housing Authority has struggled for years to fulfill its mission amid a strangled budget and almost endemic political neglect. Last week, a judge suggested strongly that the federal government should take over the agency after an investigation found evidence of deep mismanagement, including that the Housing Authority failed to perform lead inspections and then falsely claimed it had. Six top executives lost their jobs amid the federal investigation; a complaint was filed in June.

But the authority did not just ignore the required lead inspections, The New York Times found.

For at least two decades, almost every time a child in its apartments tested positive for high lead levels, NYCHA launched a counteroffensive, city records show. From 2010 through July of this year, the agency challenged 95 percent of the orders it received from the Health Department to remove lead detected in NYCHA apartments.

Private landlords hardly ever contest a finding of lead; they did so in only 4 percent of the 5,000 orders they received over the same period, records show.

NYCHA’s strategy often worked. The Health Department backed down in 158 of 211 cases in public housing after the authority challenged its finding, the data shows. A Health Department spokesman said that it rescinded its orders because it became convinced that its initial test was a false positive.

“I’m not sure how useful it is to spend all the time and resources going back and forth with testing when maybe we could spend the time and resources making sure the exposure is controlled,” said David Jacobs, who ran the lead poisoning prevention program at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1995 to 2004.

It is emblematic of disarray in the Housing Authority’s lead policy that stretches back decades, an examination by The Times found.

The Times interviewed more than 100 current and former top city and federal housing officials, maintenance workers, building managers, lead contractors, health experts and public housing residents and reviewed thousands of pages of documents and court records. Taken together, they reveal an agency that assumed lead was no longer a threat, despite not really knowing where it was.

After suing lead paint companies in 1989, the city spent years arguing in court that its public housing buildings were riddled with lead. But as the case wound down, the Housing Authority adopted the opposite position, routinely contesting findings of lead. By 2004, the authority decided that only 92 of its 325 developments contained lead and clung to that position.

It was apparently wrong.

— Inspection Failures

Soon after he took office in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former regional director for HUD, signaled his support for the public housing system, modeling himself after former Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who oversaw the creation of the authority in the 1930s. De Blasio repeatedly visited the red brick developments in his first year, holding eight news conferences, and he put billions into capital projects, including new lighting and roofs.

Of all the problems afflicting NYCHA, lead was thought to be somewhere toward the bottom of the list, former officials said.

Lead paint — which becomes dangerous when it peels into flakes or is ground into dust that people can ingest — was once a pernicious threat in homes, schools and factories all over the country. The toxin affects children differently but can stunt growth and cause permanent cognitive and behavioral problems in developing brains. It has been banned in New York City since 1960 and subject to a federal ban in 1978. Since then, cases of lead poisoning have dropped precipitously in the city and nationwide.

So the Housing Authority just stopped looking for it.

Lead came up in discussions at Gracie Mansion after the metal was found in the water supply in Flint, Michigan, in 2015. The consensus among New York officials was that they did not have to worry about a lead problem in the Housing Authority, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations.

Word came in late 2015 to City Hall that the Housing Authority was the subject of a sprawling federal investigation that included lead paint. When the inquiry became public the following March, the de Blasio administration downplayed the problem, even as it began to learn of inspection failures, several former officials said. Administration officials were dismissive of stories about lead exposure that had appeared in The Daily News.

Not long afterward, public housing residents received letters from the authority requesting access for inspections. The authority did not want to create “a panic” among residents, two people with direct knowledge of the conversations said, so the letters said nothing about yearslong lapses in mandatory lead paint checks.

Some members of the authority’s own board were also not informed. “Maybe they just didn’t want us to know,” said Beatrice Byrd, a resident of the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn and a board member at the time.

NYCHA, like all public housing that receives federal funds, must abide by myriad rules, and since 2000, one of those has been to look around older apartments every year to check for possible lead paint hazards, like peeling or flaking paint.

Once those are spotted, inspectors are supposed to conduct more sophisticated tests to see if lead is actually present.

In theory, the authority met that requirement by including those checks in its general apartment inspections, which happened annually until 2012. In reality, The Times found, looking for potential lead hazards was rarely part of the routine even before 2012, according to interviews with maintenance workers, residents and officials.

“We’re maintenance. We’re doing the inspections. We’re not mainly checking for lead,” said Tyree Haslip, a retired building superintendent who worked in the Queensbridge Houses. “The only thing we may mark down is if the paint is peeling off the walls or off the ceiling.”

That did not mean someone came to test or fix the potential hazard. Lead abatement teams worked mostly in buildings that NYCHA believed to contain lead and usually only after a resident moved out, its workers said.

In summer 2012, the authority stopped making its annual maintenance rounds entirely, in response to a federal rule change.

The decision to stop those apartment inspections came under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The authority was eager to direct its maintenance workers to conduct repairs rather than perform so many inspections, two former officials said, to clear a ballooning backlog of open work orders, often called tickets.

“There was such pressure to get tickets completed,” said Paul D’Ambrosi, a former paint inspector who retired in 2012.

Officials are still unsure when lead inspections were last done, The Times found.

Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, said in response to questions from The Times that City Hall could not find evidence that inspections even before 2012 were in compliance with local and federal laws.

“At this point, we have no confidence in NYCHA’s annual inspections that took place before our administration began,” Lapeyrolerie said in a statement.

The inspection failures began coming to light inside the authority in 2015, according to a report by the city Department of Investigation. By the time the de Blasio administration began quietly starting to check for lead paint hazards in 2016 and 2017, it had been years since anyone had done so.

The neglect showed.

In a two-month stretch at the end of 2017, contractors hired by the city visited 8,300 apartments and found potential lead paint hazards — peeling or flaking paint, or dust — in 80 percent of them, according to records produced as part of a lawsuit in state court.

The suit, filed by a tenant group, is one of several the authority faces over lead, including a state court suit by Mikaila’s mother, Shari Broomes, and a separate action in federal court by the families of dozens of children who have tested positive for lead in recent years.

“You all have Band-Aids that you put on everything in the projects, but you all could not put a Band-Aid on something that was harmful to my daughter?” Broomes said. “It didn’t come from me, it came from my place of dwelling, and I can’t help the fact that we live here.”

This spring, the judge in the tenants’ case ordered new inspections, saying there was a “credibility issue” with testing overseen by the Housing Authority.

A new round of visual checks this year found hazards such as peeling paint in 92 percent of the apartments that were checked.

— Warring agencies Not that long ago, the city was busy trying to convince a court that lead was a widespread hazard throughout its public housing. In 1989, city lawyers sued companies that made lead paint, accusing them of knowingly selling a poisonous product, much like the successful lawsuits against tobacco companies.

The lawsuit failed. NYCHA’s own design specifications showed that except for two developments — Williamsburg in Brooklyn and the Harlem River Houses in Manhattan — the authority had never used the specific type of lead at issue in the suit. Another type of lead was more commonly used on building components, but that was not part of the lawsuit.

From 1998 to 2004, NYCHA inspectors testing a sampling of apartments concluded there was lead in less than a third of its buildings. The inventory became a kind of bible: The apartments in buildings that were not on the list, such as the Gowanus and Tompkins Houses, where Mikaila lives, were assumed not to have lead.

But NYCHA could have known something was likely wrong with the list by watching its youngest tenants.

New York state law requires children to be screened for lead exposure even before they can walk, and annually up to age 6 if they are at particular risk. If the amount of lead in a child’s blood hits a certain threshold, it triggers a mechanism: The doctor contacts the city Health Department, which sends an inspector to test the child’s home for lead paint.

In 2015, 171 children in New York City public housing tested positive for elevated lead, down from 517 in 2010.

The Housing Authority was ordered by the Health Department inspector to remove lead in a child’s apartment an average two dozen times a year from 2010 through 2017, records show.

But city and court records show the authority refuted the Health Department’s findings as a matter of routine.

The Health Department would do a test using an X-ray fluorescence device called an XRF analyzer, which looks like a ray gun and can measure lead through layers of paint. NYCHA would follow up by digging out samples in the apartment and sending them to a lab, called a paint-chip test.

In a 1999 affidavit, Brian Clarke, then the coordinator of the Housing Authority’s lead detection and abatement unit, had disparaged the paint-chip technique. “A false negative can result,” he said in an affidavit.

But the paint-chip test eventually became the Housing Authority’s preferred method to challenge the Health Department’s tests.

“By the course of business, when we issue violations, NYCHA does their own check,” Michel Meulens, a Health Department inspector, testified in October 2017 in a trial involving a child who tested positive for lead in 2003. The case ended in a settlement.

Clarke, who declined to comment for this article, would eventually rise to the upper echelons of the authority, as a senior vice president for operations. He was one of several top executives to be forced out late last year over his handling of the lead paint scandal. Shola Olatoye, chairwoman of NYCHA, was also among the executives who were ousted. She declined a request for comment.

The goal in challenging the Health Department’s findings, much like it was for the paint companies years before, was to shield the city from lawsuits by showing that the high lead levels in these children came from somewhere other than the home where they lived and played, officials said. The stakes are high: In January, a jury ordered NYCHA to pay $57 million to the family of Dakota Jade Taylor, a child with high levels of lead in her blood. The sum is being negotiated.

The authority believed its approach was valid because the Health Department so often rescinded its orders, Stanley Brezenoff, the interim NYCHA chairman, said recently in an interview.

The Housing Authority cannot say precisely when it began challenging the city’s own findings of lead. Staffers recalled that the practice dates at least to the late 1990s, Jasmine Blake, an authority spokeswoman, wrote in an emailed statement.

It continued until September when, after inquiries from The Times, the de Blasio administration reversed course.

“We are now in a posture of not contesting,” Brezenoff said. “Whatever the merits of a particular case, or whatever is involved, we’re accepting whatever the finding of the Health Department is.” It was a lesson private landlords learned years ago. “There’s a concern and a fear on the part of the owners about liability. They just do it,” said Frank Ricci, director of government affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents residential building owners. “The landlord calls a certified contractor to come and correct the condition wherever DOH has designated they’ve found lead.”

Warring between government agencies has bewildered families.

Deborah Morrison, 51, a substitute teacher and resident of the Gowanus Houses, recalled when her son, Saheed, tested positive for lead in 2010. Now a soft-spoken 11-year-old, Saheed excels in designing cartoon characters on his phone but needs special help in school.

Morrison said Housing Authority workers used gypsum board to cover a portion of her bedroom wall, close to where Saheed had slept in a crib for the first years of his life.

She did not realize until told by a reporter that the authority had successfully disputed a Health Department finding of lead paint in a second location, on a hallway pipe. No work was done there, according to city records.

“See, now you got me, because I didn’t even know there was two,” she said.

Lead paint had been found during renovations in the mid-1990s in the Gowanus Houses, Barry Stabile, a former Housing Authority employee involved in the work, said in an interview. But based on its sampling from 1998 to 2004, the Housing Authority did not include the Gowanus Houses on its list of complexes assumed to have lead paint. That did not change even after Saheed tested positive, and the authority worked on his home.

So when federal regulators visited the Gowanus Houses in 2015 on a routine inspection — when Saheed was 8 and Mikaila barely 2 — they did not treat the peeling paint they saw almost everywhere as a health hazard, according to HUD.

Neither did the Housing Authority. For both agencies, the deteriorating paint was just a maintenance problem.

This year, de Blasio promised to spend $80 million for testing next year to figure out, once and for all, where the lead paint is. The city will be inspecting apartments built before 1978, approximately 140,000 units out of 176,000 that the Housing Authority maintains, and the inspectors will be relying mainly on XRF analyzers for the hunt.

— Mikaila’s Future

In late summer 2016, as the city scrambled to reinspect apartments for lead paint hazards, Mikaila’s blood lead level hit 37 micrograms per deciliter, nearly eight times the amount that triggers Health Department action.

After the Housing Authority told the Health Department that the lead could not have come from its apartments, Mikaila’s family said she was still not herself, by turns lethargic and hyperactive. Occasionally, said her grandmother, Ordeen Broomes, she wailed with discomfort. A third blood test in late September 2016 showed she still had very high levels of lead.

So the Health Department returned to both apartments and again found lead, according to city records, this time in dust on the floor. At this point, the Housing Authority relented. Workers came with a bucket of cleanser and a special vacuum to suck up the dust.

But no one looked for the source of the lead-riddled dust, according to city records reviewed by The Times. The Housing Authority declined to comment on Mikaila’s case, citing the pending litigation.

Mikaila, now 5 and a kindergartner, has not required any special attention at school, her mother said. Still, said Max Costa, a professor and chairman of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine, her experience is “going to totally affect her life, and there’s no way you can reverse it.” The family’s observations are consistent with those effects, Costa said. Broomes, who works for the Parks Department, wants to get her family out of public housing. But it is a struggle.

On a recent evening, she sat at her dining room table holding her head in her hands. A cockroach fell from a kitchen cabinet. Another climbed the wall.

About a year after Mikaila tested positive for lead, maintenance workers painted, patched over a large hole in the wall and laid new tiles on top of her crumbling linoleum floor, Broomes said. Problems persisted, she said, but saving money for a private apartment or a house was difficult.

As she spoke, Mikaila, sitting beside her, arched her eyebrows at the thought of a house.

“I want stairs for my room,” Mikaila said. “I want stairs so I can go up the stairs so I can go to my room. I want to get a back garden and I want to plant some seeds.”