York's lead abatement programs suffering under weight of COVID-19

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Row homes are shown in York City, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled some efforts to combat lead exposure in York City, an issue that local officials say is a "serious public health risk."

Meanwhile, a recent report from the state Health Department shows York is one of multiple counties in Pennsylvania in which children have higher blood-lead levels than Flint, Michigan, an area that in 2014 became the epicenter of the nation's lead exposure crisis.

“Even prior to this year, we had recognized lead poisoning and lead hazards as a serious public health risk for our residents," said Craig Walt, the York City Health Bureau's community health services supervisor. "I can say that having to respond to a pandemic has affected our ability to meet some of our plans for this year.”

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Lead exposure is known to cause damage to the brain and nervous system, to slow growth and development and to lead to learning and behavioral problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In York City, the largest driver of exposure is older homes that have lead paint. Black children in particular are at the highest risk of elevated blood-lead levels, according to the state Health Department.

While the use of lead paint was banned in 1978, a majority of homes in York City were built before that year.

Of the approximately 18,000 structures in the city, 70% are identified as residential housing. And 84% of those were built before 1978, said Mike Shanabrook, the emergency planning specialist for York City.

The issue of child exposure to lead has also been compounded by the pandemic, as children are now staying inside more than ever due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, Walt said. There has also been a decrease in testing for lead.

A condemned section is shown in a line of row homes on Wallace Street in York City, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

That comes as recently released data shows 3.9% of children born in 2016 and tested up until the age of 2 years old in York County had confirmed elevated blood-lead levels, according to the state Childhood Lead Surveillance report released last month.

Data specific to York City was unavailable.

The county data, though, still ranked eighth in the state. The highest percentage of elevated blood-lead levels was found in Berks County, coming in at 6.4%.

The local numbers are well above those seen in Flint, Michigan, an area that has made notable progress in curbing blood-lead levels in the years since the discovery that a 2014 switch in the water supply had introduced lead into the city's drinking water.

In 2017, 3% of children under 6 years old — the metric used in the state — had elevated blood-lead levels in Flint, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

As of last year, that number had dropped to 1.3%.

The York City Health Bureau has seen some aid from the state and federal government in its lead abatement efforts, but the money doesn't add up to much, said Barbara Kovacs, director of the city's health bureau.

“The funding that we had only allows for us to do six to eight units in a year. We don’t have the staff within the city to do this full time," Kovacs said. “And we don’t have any time to be seeking additional funding right now because of the pandemic.”

Last year, the city received a three-year state grant that put $38,000 toward abatement in 2019 and $54,000 in 2020.

Additionally, the city will receive $104,000 on an annual basis through 2023 after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which can also entail supplemental funding.

A condemned home is shown in a line of row homes at the intersection of Franklin and York Streets in York City, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Those funds are used for a variety of lead abatement measures, such as identifying homes with lead issues, increasing testing and crafting stronger policies to hold landlords to stricter standards to ensure any lead issues are taken care of.

Even if the city were to seek additional funding, the pandemic's impact on state revenues would make additional funding hard to come by, said Neil Lesher, spokesperson for state Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

"In these difficult times, our goal has been to find the right balance between funding essential government services and reducing operating expenses to ensure we have a balanced budget," he said.

"At this time, the state does not have any additional dollars for new programs."

U.S. Reps. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, and Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment.

But politicians on Capitol Hill are also busy, as they are entangled in a partisan battle over how to prevent a government shutdown and provide additional stimulus to aid states struggling to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.