NYC public housing units in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Photo: Getty

For years, New York City has claimed that only 19 children living in New York City Public Housing (NYCHA) in the last decade have registered for high lead levels in their blood. The number was considered by some advocates and the press to be dubious, especially given recent revelations that the city had fudged lead paint inspections in public housing units for years.

Last Saturday, the city’s Department of Health finally offered a realistic number—and it blows the previous count completely out of the water.

As first reported by the New York Daily News, the city Department of Health admitted that between 2012 and 2016, 820 children under the age of 6 were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

However, the Health Department did not notify the Housing Authority for most of these cases, meaning that the city did not do inspections on the children’s homes for the presence of lead paint. This is because New York City uses a much more conservative lead level than the Centers for Disease Control recommends for public health intervention.

Here’s a short explanation from the New York Times:

The children tested positive for lead levels of 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter, the minimum amount for which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that localities intervene. The health department sent “detailed letters” alerting the children’s parents and health care providers and offering guidance on how to reduce exposure, said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But the health department did not inspect apartments the children lived in because the city policy — which city officials say follows federal recommendations — requires a lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter before an apartment would be inspected and NYCHA, as the housing authority is known, would be notified.

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The CDC recommends that after a child tests positive for lead levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter, an “environmental assessment of detailed history” must be completed to identify the cause of the lead exposure.

The updated number comes amid increased scrutiny over the ways the country’s largest public housing agency has dealt—or rather, not dealt—with squalid conditions in its apartments.

Last month, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman announced that the city will pay $2 billion to settle claims of corruption and mismanagement. And late last year, an investigation revealed the city filed false paperwork on lead paint inspections, with authorities signing off on inspections that never happened. The Daily News reports that the inspections that did take place were “haphazard” and performed by untrained workers.

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As the Daily News notes, this policy of choosing a higher trigger number started under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults, and exposure to lead can severely stunt a child’s intellectual and physical development. High lead levels can cause nerve disorders, muscle and joint pain, and affect a child’s hormone and immune systems.

The city Health Department told both the Daily News and the Times that the city changed its policy earlier this year to reflect the CDC recommendation, saying it will now inspect all NYCHA homes where children under 18 have been found with a lead level of 5 micrograms or more per deciliter.

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For 800 or so children, that city’s newfound commitment to protecting the health of those in public housing may be too little, too late.