Almost all of the homes in Elmira were built before lead paint was banned, but the city is not eligible to apply for big state grants to remove it. Larger upstate cities, including Rochester and Binghamton, do qualify.
And even though they are allowed to apply for federal grants, many rural and poor areas don’t have enough resources to do that, because they’d have to front 10 to 25 percent of the cost.
Qualifying for grants
Those grants are aimed at bigger cities, because they simply have more people affected by lead, according to Stanley Schaffer, who directs the lead resource center at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“It often seems that some of the smaller communities are neglected in terms of not having the same opportunities to deal with the lead problem,” said Schaffer. “It is a major problem and we hear about it, repeatedly, from authorities in smaller communities.”
In recent years, the number of babies in Elmira tested for lead poisoning increased because the city used money from a settlement with Kennedy Valve to encourage families to test their babies.
But the money ran out a few years ago and now, fewer babies are getting tested for lead.
Nutrition, Renting and Poverty
It’s an issue that disproportionately affects people who are poor, said Jennifer Becker, Schaffer’s colleague. There are a few reasons for that.
“Most people who are poor don’t own their homes. They rent. Oftentimes, the landlords are not able or not willing to keep up the home in a way that prevents lead poisoning,” said Becker.
Landlords cannot evict a family for reporting a lead issue, but renters still hesitate to report it, Becker said, because they worry their landlord will find another reason to kick them out.
Over half of the housing in Elmira is for renters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Further, babies are more likely to absorb lead if they don’t have a balanced diet.
“Lead, molecularly, is very similar to other required nutrients like iron and calcium and zinc, which our bodies need,” Schaffer said. “But, our bodies do not need lead. If we’re deficient in any of those nutrients, but we are exposed to lead, we will absorb more lead because of its similarity to these other elements.”
Some cities, including Rochester, have laws requiring homes be inspected before they are rented out.