Childhood Lead Poisoning:

The Best Kept Open Secret in Onondaga County

From the Nov/Dec 2019 PNL #869

by Oceanna Fair and Kadashea Smith

Download a pdf of this article



The surroundings of Oceanna’s home are all
lead contaminated due to the chipping of the
exterior paint of the house.
Photo: Jessica Ruiz


In Onondaga County, approximately 600 children a year test positive for Lead poisoning, a preventable yet serious illness. Of that 600, 85% of those children live in the City of Syracuse in the 13204 and 13205 zip codes. Lead is toxic to everyone! The most vulnerable candidates for health issues resulting from lead poisoning are children under the age of 6. Lead is a neurotoxin that can prevent the absorption of calcium to form strong bones and teeth. It can affect the development of a child’s brain and motor skills. Even in small amounts, lead poisoning can have devastating lifelong physical and developmental effects on children under the age of 6. Some children show no signs of being ill, while others may have symptoms that vary. Some of the effects of lead poisoning can include but are not limited to headaches, behavioral problems, trouble concentrating, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, constipation, fatigue, muscle and joint weakness, seizures and even death.

You may wonder how children come in to contact with such a toxic substance. Lead can be found in several places. The most common place is their own homes. Children can get lead poisoning through lead-based paint. Lead-based paint was commonly used in homes built prior to 1978. 72% of the Syracuse housing stock was built around that time. Lead can also be found in soil, dust containing lead, water that flows through lead pipes and some pottery.

Lead is absorbed into the body through inhalation or ingestion. Children may eat paint chips containing lead, which taste sweet. They may place objects in their mouth such as toys that have come into contact with contaminated dust or soil. Chipping paint in the home causes the dust in the home that can be inhaled.

To understand the lead problem in Onondaga County, we must understand the history of lead in America and available housing in Onondaga County. In the Early 1900’s lead-based paint was commonly used in homes and schools. In 1922 lead was added to gasoline to raise the octane level, making premium gas for high-performance engines. There was plenty of scientific evidence at the time that lead was dangerous and should not be used, industries rejected this claim and the government allowed it.

In 1970, President Nixon signed the “Clean Air Act of 1970” and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. These efforts resulted in the “Lead-based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act” of 1971. Restricting the lead content in paint used in housing built with federal dollars. However, it wasn’t until 1976 that the “Consumer Product Safety Commission” effectively banned lead paint. Lead continued to be added to gasoline until 1990 when amendments to the Clean Air Act were added that banned the use of lead in gas.

In the City of Syracuse, 72% of the housing market was built prior to 1960 when lead-based paint was primarily used. In addition, 92% of the housing was built prior to 1980. As a rule, any house built before 1978 needs to be assumed to have lead contamination. With these types of numbers most children in the City of Syracuse live in homes that contain lead.

How do we keep our children safe? Prevention is key! Parents need to be educated on lead poisoning and what to look for when renting or buying a home. This includes education on rights and responsibilities of home owners, renters, and landlords to the risk that lead poses and their responsibilities to remediate or abate it. Homeowners and contractors doing the work need to have proper training and certifications has directed by the EPA. In a home if a child tests positive for lead poisoning, interim prevention measures need to be put in place to prevent further harm until remediation or abatement is completed.

Lead poisoning is a Community issue that should involve everyone in the solution. Affected families, homeowners, landlords, health officials, school districts, community leaders, and government officials all need to work together to solve the problem. If everyone brings their expertise and experience to the table, we can eliminate the lead problem in our community.

Oceanna Fair is a founding member of Families for Lead Freedom Now, is a retired LPN who owns a home in the City of Syracuse.

Kadashea Smith is a residential Manager with an associate in health services and is a homeowner in the City of Syracuse.