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Buffalo a "lead hazard hotspot" according to Reuters investigation

An investigative report released by Reuters News shows the City of Buffalo to be one of the most at-risk cities in the nation for child exposure to lead. Such exposure is linked to hindered learning and behavioral development. While the city and Erie County are making progress, there are fears proposed federal budget cuts could set back prevention efforts.

According to the Reuters report, 40 percent of children living in four ZIP codes within the City of Buffalo, tested between the years of 2006 and 2014, registered elevated levels of lead in their blood.

"Just to give you a comparison, in Flint, Michigan during the peak of that city's crisis, Centers for Disease Control testing found about five percent of tested children had elevated blood levels," said Michael Pell, one of the Reuters reporters who worked on the study.

(Click here for a link to the Reuters investigation, which includes an interactive map providing details about lead testing levels by ZIP codes in cities that were studied.)

According to Reuters, Buffalo is among the worst lead hotspots in America. The problem lies within the city's old housing stock. Homes build before 1978 may have lead in pipes and in its paint. Low income may affect a household's ability to afford repairs.

Erie County has programs in place to address lead exposure. The money to support them comes from federal, state and philanthropic organizations. But concerns are being raised, both in the Reuters report and among county officials, that proposed federal budget cuts will put lead programs at risk. 

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein explained that the county relies on funding from sources including the CDC and Department of Housing and Urban Development for its efforts, including child lead poisoning prevention.

"If the Affordable Health Care Act is eliminated, those dollars that fund that program from the CDC come through the Affordable Care Act, those dollars will disappear," Burstein said. "It's really the bread and butter of our childhood lead prevention program."

The county also relies on federal dollars from HUD and community block grants, Burstein added, for housing remediation and even providing protection for those who are rehabilitating affected homes.

Even if funding were to later be restored, cutting it now would leave a long-term negative impact, suggested Pell. He told WBFO the CDC's lead program took a significant budget hit in 2011 but the effects are still being felt. It's now being threatened by additional proposed cuts.

"The lead program for the CDC is another program whose future funding is uncertain," Pell said. "Initially the Trump administration supported repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which would have cut this program's funding completely."

But Pell suggests President Donald Trump might be persuaded to reconsider, if he can be convinced that continued funding in lead prevention programs is an investment, and if the right people are getting in his ear. 

"President Trump, during the election, was pretty outspoken about his desire to conduct an infrastructure project," Pell said. "The cleanup we're talking about, lead remediation, is nothing but an infrastructure project, improving housing."

His also suggested his daughter, Ivanka Trump, might be an ideal person to convince the president that funding lead programs is a wise investment.

"She cares about children and the return on investment would be easy for her to see," Pell said. "Her father would support that." 

Dr. Burstein also considers continued spending in lead programs an investment that saves governments health care spending on the effects of lead poisoning in the future.

"Prevention is so much more cost-effective. We can prevent these children from being poisoned from lead," she said. "Their quality of life will be better. It will save our healthcare system so much money."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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