Mark Hayward's City Matters: Manchester slow to get the lead out
In June 2012, a city inspector visited the apartment building at 312 Cedar St. and dutifully noted two violations of the city's housing code. Foundation stones needed to be properly mortared. And overgrown trees in the rear of the house had to be cut back.
Of course, the inspection made no mention of lead. The city doesn't inspect for lead paint, which for decades has been linked to learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children. Nor does the city's housing code prohibit lead in rental properties, like it does unruly backyard trees.
So it should come as no surprise when doctors this summer found high levels of lead in Rukiya Abukar's three small children. They were basically poisoned in an apartment that passed the city's inspection process.
To add insult to injury, the city Welfare Department placed them in the apartment, said Hawa Enow, the 19-year-old daughter of Abukar, who served as a translator.
"We feel really horrible," said Enow. According to a letter from Children's Hospital at Dartmouth, her 4-year-old sister, Amina Abdi, has a lead level of 21 micrograms per deciliter, more than twice the state's action level of 10.
The family — Somali refugees who have lived in Manchester for seven years — moved into the three-bedroom apartment in 2009. They pay $1,000 a month in rent, which does not include heat or electricity.
"It's not a good thing to have lead in the body," Enow said. "They're little kids; they will pick up everything. The baby is crawling. He will pick up everything and just eat it."
Because Abukar's children were poisoned, state health officials have notified the landlord, and an elaborate process of inspection, documentation, remediation and reinspection has begun. Landlord Choundary Khan has applied for a federal grant to pay for the lead removal.
He said he didn't know about lead when he purchased the building in 2007, and it cleared an inspection.
In a nutshell, this describes the upside-down, dysfunctional approach the city of Manchester and the state of New Hampshire take toward lead poisoning. Politicians and inspectors know the poison is out there, but they comfortably ignore it until it shows up in a child's blood and already does its damage.
Then it's "gee, shucks, there's poison in that 100-year-old property? Well I'm shocked." (Lead paint was commonly used on exteriors and interior trims until 1978.)
Manchester is a city that has the shameful history of seeing one of its residents — a 2-year-old child — die of lead poisoning in 2000. And last year, 24 of the 74 cases of lead poisoning in the state — a third — were in Manchester, according to the latest data compiled by the state Department of Health and Human Services. (Along with most New Hampshire cities, Manchester is considered high risk for lead poisoning.)
So why doesn't the city inspect for lead?
The basic assumption is that any structure built or painted before 1978 has lead, according to Manchester's chief housing inspector, David Albin. And his staff doesn't have the manpower to take samples of lead and test them in every property they inspect, he said.
The city's health director, Tim Soucy, recently said that a hand-held spectograph, which measures lead levels with a touch of a button, is too expensive.
But even if the city did test, there is no law or regulation on the books that prohibits lead in apartments. In Massachusetts, landlords must inspect and remove lead from any apartment where a preschool-aged child lives.
In 2009, former state Sen. Betsi DeVries sponsored legislation to toughen the state's lead laws, which were some of the weakest in the country at the time, she said. Public health advocates were solidly behind it, but landlords fought the bill.
"I had many angry phone calls," said DeVries, whose district included some center-city areas with old buildings. "We have a lot of slumlords from out of state," she said. "They don't care about the city or the state; they care about their profit margins."
Khan, who owns a market in the city, is not from out of state. He said he is working with the city to get the lead cleaned. He's applied for a grant that will have the federal government foot most of the bill for cleaning up the lead.
He said there was no chipping paint in the apartment, and I didn't see any when I visited. But state officials said a partial inspection found lead on the doors and door stops.
The legislation that finally passed lowered the acceptable blood level of lead in children. And it requires a landlord to test and remove lead from all apartments in a building where a child is poisoned. In 2000, a child suffered lead poisoning at 312 Cedar St., but the law at the time required that only the problem apartment be cleared of lead, not the entire building, state officials said.
So although the 2009 law made some beneficial changes, it kept the current system — poison first, remove lead next — intact. DeVries said it shouldn't be that painful for landlords to remove lead because federal and state money is available to help cover the costs. (Two years ago, I received a grant to remove lead from portions of the two-family home that my family and I live in.)
So the city continues with its lead-free fantasy.
Sellers of real estate sign disclosure forms that say they're unaware (wink, wink) of any lead hazards. Landlords hand out EPA brochures warning of lead to overworked parents who are barely literate in English. Government officials hold lead awareness week where they test children's toys for lead.
And children keep getting poisoned.
To DeVries, the system wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else.
"If it were coming from a source of food you were buying in a supermarket," DeVries said, "the government would be all over it and controlling it."
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.