When the city Housing Authority placed the Herrera family in Apartment 5-A at the Red Hook Houses in 2013, the agency knew the public housing unit contained toxic lead paint.
NYCHA knew it because the agency had just tested it and found lead in the Brooklyn apartment. After untrained, uncertified workers performed lead abatement, they had deemed it “clean.” Per policy, the new tenants were not informed about the potential hazard in the home.
Five-year-old Melany Herrera was an infant when she arrived at Apartment 5-A. And by the time she was 2, a blood test revealed a level of 5.6 micrograms of lead per deciliter.
Six months later, it hit 10 micrograms.
Anything 5 micrograms and above is considered unacceptable because lead can cause developmental delays, particularly in young children.
Melany’s mother, Marleni, 22, had no idea that the apartment contained lead paint when her daughter’s alarming test results arrived because no one bothered to tell her when she moved in.
“They said everything was OK,” she recalled. “All the time I was panicking. I was scared. The way they were doing things, they made it seem like I was the problem.”
A Daily News investigation published Dec. 1 revealed that from 2013 through 2015 — most of that time on Mayor de Blasio’s watch — the New York City Housing Authority placed hundreds of families into apartments the agency knew contained lead paint without warning them of the potential harm to their children.
The News spoke with nine of these families, all of whom have children who grew up in these toxic apartments and wound up with dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Scientists say exposure to lead paint in young children can cause brain damage, and nearly all of the children with high blood-lead levels in families interviewed by The News were steered into a special education track.
The News also found two more families living in apartments with lead paint whose children have not had their blood tested but who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities.
Their fears sit in sharp contrast with de Blasio’s recent public declaration downplaying NYCHA’s lead paint inspection failures: “Thank God there has not been harm done to any child because of the mistakes that have been made.”
Yareni Herrera, sister of Marleni, remains in Red Hook Houses apartment with her daughter, Yaurelis, and she fears for her child’s health.
(Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News)
From 2013 through 2015, NYCHA tested more than 3,000 apartments for lead paint when tenants moved out, according to internal NYCHA records obtained by The News. More than 1,600 of those apartments tested positive for lead.
NYCHA did not let tenants who moved into these apartments know about the presence of lead — even expectant mothers or families with young children — because the authority had deemed all of these apartments “clean” after lead paint abatement, records show.
The problem with this decision is that the authority now admits that this lead paint abatement was performed in violation of federal regulations by uncertified workers who were untrained in how to properly abate lead paint.
Add to this the fact that for years NYCHA had stopped performing annual lead paint inspections that are required by both local law and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department.
As a result, hundreds of families with young children have been exposed to a potential hazard that was hidden from them by design.
The lead paint scandal began to emerge in July when The News first revealed that NYCHA had been falsely claiming it was performing all required inspections and abatements. Last month, the scandal blew wide open when the city Department of Investigation confirmed this and revealed that in October 2016, NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye lied, falsely certifying the agency was in compliance with inspections when she knew it was not.
Then on Dec. 1, The News revealed for the first time that NYCHA had long been using untrained workers to inspect apartments and abate lead paint.
Because of these failures, inspection for lead has been extremely limited in the last few years.
NYCHA manages 178,000 apartments, of which 55,000 are presumed to contain lead. But from Jan. 1, 2013, through Dec. 31, 2015, NYCHA inspected only 3,097 apartments for lead paint, of which 1,604 tested positive, internal records show.
Almost all of these inspections took place when tenants moved out. Then new tenants — knowing nothing about those test results — moved in.
The lobby of NYCHA Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn has peeling paint on its walls. Hundreds of families with young children have been exposed to a potential lead paint hazard that was hidden from them by design.
(Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News)
NYCHA has claimed 19 children living in lead paint apartments have tested positive for lead from 2010 through 2016. The News found nine of these children at developments all over the city.
At the Bronx River Houses in Soundview, Evelyn Gray’s Apartment 1-A at 1460 Bronx River Ave. tested positive for lead in 2013 and was deemed “abated” on March 26, 2013. Her son has lived there since birth and tested positive for an elevated level of lead in his blood by the time he was 5, according to a lawsuit filed against NYCHA by attorney Corey Stern.
Stern is also representing tenant Taneequa Carrington, a resident of the Breukelen Houses in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Her son registered a high blood-lead level by the time he was 2. Her Apartment 2-A at 569 E. 108th St. was not tested, but an apartment across the street tested positive for lead in February 2013.
At the Red Hook Houses, built in 1939 long before lead paint was banned, the toxic paint is everywhere — along with a cluster of children with elevated blood lead.
From 2013 through 2015, NYCHA found lead paint in 114 of 124 Red Hook apartments inspected — including the Herrera family’s home. All were designated “abated” of lead before new tenants moved in.
NYCHA, for instance, found lead paint in Apartment 2-A at 75 Bush St. in 2013 and registered it as “abated” on April 15, 2013, records show.
“They never told us nothing,” said tenant Wilhemina Lowry, who moved in shortly after the NYCHA inspection.
Her 5-year-old grandson spent most afternoons in the apartment since he was an infant. In 2015, she says. he tested positive for elevated levels of lead in his blood.
“He’s been here since he was a baby,” she said.
A few buildings away from Lowry’s apartment, two other Red Hook tenants, living at 791 Hicks St., Sherron Paige and Jahlissa Greene, also have children with elevated lead levels. Both are suing NYCHA and de Blasio over the failure to keep their children safe from lead exposure.
For some of these parents, the discovery of a high blood-lead level is just the beginning of the story. Several of their children wound up placed in special education programs after being diagnosed as developmentally delayed.
That includes Paige’s son Kyan Dickerson, who was born in 2013 and registered elevated lead levels when he turned 4 in July. This occurred after her apartment was declared “cleaned” of lead paint by NYCHA in 2012 shortly before she moved in.
Next door to Paige’s building, tenants India Williams and Charles Blackstock moved into Apartment 2-D at 797 Hicks St. with their three children in February 2014.
Records show NYCHA found lead paint in that apartment before they moved in, and also in the Red Hook Houses apartment where they’d been living for years before moving to Apartment 2-D.
All three of their children have since been given a special education designation, Blackstock said.
Their 5-year-old daughter is on the autism spectrum. She is now receiving special needs assistance for speech delays at Public School 29 in Cobble Hill. The couple took their 8-year-old son for an MRI scan a few years ago over concerns about speech difficulties. The eldest son, age 12, struggles in school, too, and also has a speech delay.
“They all didn’t talk on time,” Blackstock said. “They have learning problems. They have physical problems like learning how to write — everything. All three of them.”
Blackstock is furious that NYCHA didn’t tell him that lead paint existed in both of the family’s Red Hook apartments.
Last week he took his children to the doctor to be tested. The results are pending.
“If we were living in an apartment that had lead in it, that may be the issue,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.”
Mayorl de Blasio has stood by NYCHA chair Shola Olatoye through the lead-paint scandal.
(Bryan Pace/for New York Daily News)
At the Pomonok Houses in Fresh Meadows, Queens, Monica Corbett’s son was designated with what the city schools call an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for special education students when he was 4. Earlier, he’d registered a high blood-lead reading.
“My son was around 4 when he got a blood test and the lead level was elevated,” she said. “It concerned me. He wasn’t slow, but he wasn’t hitting the milestones other kids had. He wound up getting an IEP.”
At the time, her apartment had not been tested for lead paint, although apartments throughout Pomonok — including the unit one floor directly below her — had registered positive for lead paint.
At the Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx, Guillermina Harrison, 45, moved into Apartment 1-G at 350 E. 137th St. in 2011 with her husband, Bruce, 59; three small kids, and three small grandkids.
In March 2013. NYCHA had not been responding to requests for repairs, so Harrison called 311. A health inspector soon showed up and found traces of lead paint. Records show the apartment was deemed “abated” on April 19, 2013. Since then, Harrison said, NYCHA has not returned for required annual lead paint checks.
Today, her 8-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism and her 5-year-old daughter has developed speech delays. None of the kids have been tested for lead in their blood, but Harrison said she will get them tested soon.
“When they were babies, they touched all the walls. We don’t know (if) they put something in their mouth,” she said.
Data analyzed by the city Independent Budget Office at the request of The News show that students living in public housing are found to have learning disabilities at a much higher rate than non-public housing students.
In the 2013-14 school year, 29.6% of students in kindergarten through eighth grade who live in public housing were placed in special education programs. That compares with 18.5% of non-NYCHA students in city public schools.
At times, there has been disagreement about the connection between lead paint in an apartment and a child testing positive for high blood lead. If a child tests positive for an elevated level of 5 or above, a doctor must notify the city Health Department. That agency then automatically tests the apartment where the child lived.
Front page of the Nov. 23, 2017, edition of the New York Daily News
(New York Daily News)
In several cases when health inspectors got a “positive” reading, NYCHA would do its own test and declare that there was no lead paint in an apartment.
That’s what happened at the Linden Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, in March 2015. After Makayla Jackson, 2, registered lead levels of 18 micrograms per deciliter, city health inspectors found lead paint in 19 spots throughout the apartment.
Since Makayla had lived her entire life in that apartment, her mother, Helen, was alarmed that she had never been told about the lead paint there.
But NYCHA contested the Health Department’s findings and did a lab test. After initially losing the paint samples, NYCHA obtained a second sample and declared there was no lead paint in the apartment.
The same thing happened with Marisa Vargas, whose 2-year-old daughter, Leilani McClain, tested positive in August 2014 with a stunning 24 micrograms per deciliter — well above acceptable levels.
Health inspectors found lead paint on the heating pipes in her Pomonok Houses apartment in September 2014, but NYCHA’s lab test declared there was no lead paint.
In the last month the lead paint scandal has rocked City Hall and NYCHA. Two NYCHA senior managers were fired, one was demoted, and multiple elected officials have called for NYCHA Chairwoman Olatoye to resign.
De Blasio has backed his appointee, but NYCHA has hired a new compliance officer and begun free blood-lead testing to children living in 2,300 of the lead paint-tainted units “cleaned” by the untrained workers. The testing began Dec. 18.
Back in Red Hook, the Herreras are still trying to understand the ramifications after The News told them about the presence of lead in their apartment. Marleni moved out a year ago with her daughter, Melany, but her sister, Yareni, 22, is still there with a 7-month-old daughter, Yaurelis.
“I don’t want to happen the same thing that happened to my sister,” she said, as her daughter smiled up from her bouncy seat.