In the last several years, the city has been aware of more than 800 children living in public housing who had tested positive for levels of lead poisoning deemed of concern by the federal government, the Daily News has learned.
This stunning number stands in stark contrast to the city's repeated claims that only 19 children living in NYCHA accommodation have registered elevated blood-lead levels in the last decade.
That's because the city chooses not to count hundreds of children with elevated lead levels for whom the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention recommends public health intervention. Instead it relies on its own far more conservative level to trigger an investigation.
As a result, the city Health Department has been aware of these children for years but did not notify the city Housing Authority and did not inspect their apartments for the presence of lead paint.
Mayor de Blasio has stated that "there has not been harm done to any child because of the mistakes that have been made," and consistently minimized the effect NYCHA's well-documented failures to perform required lead paint inspections have had on the families who live in the authority's aging apartments.
The News requested on June 18 that the city release all data on children with elevated blood-lead levels in public housing. On Friday the city Department of Health responded to The News' request.
For the first time the city acknowledged that from 2012 through 2016, 820 children ages 5 and under living in NYCHA apartments had tested positive for elevated lead levels of 5 to 9 micro-grams per deciliter of blood.
Since 2012 the CDC has recommended public health intervention for any child from infant to 5 years old with blood-lead levels of 5 micro-grams or greater. Elevated blood-lead levels are known to cause developmental delays in small children.
During the Bloomberg administration and continuing under de Blasio, the city chose to ignore the CDC recommendation and use a higher trigger of 10 micro-grams per deciliter before notifying NYCHA and inspecting apartments.
On Friday a spokeswoman for the mayor, Olivia Lapeyrolerie, said the Health Department "in general" notifies parents that their children have registered levels between 5 and 9 micro-grams but does not do inspections or notify NYCHA.
She called the CDC standard "a recommendation," adding, "The CDC recommends each city respond to each case, but leaves it up to each jurisdiction to determine that response. DOH was responding to these cases by contacting each family."
In fact the CDC makes very specific recommendations about how to respond to these findings, stating that public health authorities should complete an "environmental assessment of detailed history to identify potential sources of lead exposure."
With the 820 children, that did not occur.
On Friday in response to The News' questions, the administration revealed the city Health Department quietly began using the CDC's 5 micro-gram standard for children living in NYCHA in January. The mayor did not explain why they switched, but his press secretary, Eric Phillips, wrote in an email, "As soon as our health experts believed the new protocol could help further fuel the reduction of kids getting sick, the mayor acted."
But on Saturday Phillips amended that, stating that in fact the city adopted the CDC standard at the beginning of the year after federal housing officials began encouraging that standard.
At the time the city started using the CDC standard, the mayor and NYCHA were negotiating a settlement with federal prosecutors in their investigation of NYCHA's failures, including its lies about lead paint inspections that never happened.
The mayor told The News that starting this week, the department will now adopt the CDC standard for all non-NYCHA apartments as well. That should be finished by the end of the year.
"Lead poisoning is down almost 90% since 2005, but that's not good enough," de Blasio said in a statement. "We've already made our testing protocols more strict for kids in public housing and we are now extending that standard to the entire city. It's our job to always push the envelope when it comes to our kids' health."
The number of children living in NYCHA with blood-lead levels of 5-to-9 micrograms has dropped recently, but each year since 2012 hundreds of children have registered these levels of lead in their blood, starting with 229 in 2012, 184 in 2013, 181 in 2014,112 in 2015 and 114 in 2016, the latest year available.
Questions about the scope of lead poisoning of children living in NYCHA apartments have circulated since 2015, when The News first began reporting on this issue. For years the authority management attacked The News' reporting on lead paint, claiming to tenants, the public and elected officials that they were regularly performing rigorous testing as required by local laws and federal regulations.
These claims have been exposed as lies, first by the city Department of Investigation in November and then on June 11 by an 80-page complaint filed by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman's civil division.
The federal complaint detailed an elaborate and long-running effort by NYCHA managers and staff to cover up squalid conditions in the authority's 175,000 apartments, including falsely claiming between 2012 and 2016 that they were performing required lead paint inspections.
The complaint said the city did not adequately investigate the source of lead poisoning for "many hundreds" of children living in NYCHA, but the feds would not disclose the actual number.
Some of these children registered elevated lead levels during Bloomberg's term, some during de Blasio's. In many of these cases during both mayors' tenures, the child's apartment was never inspected. As The News has revealed over the last two years, NYCHA failed in numerous ways to scope out and alleviate its lead paint problem. Inspections and clean-ups have been haphazard and more often than not performed by untrained workers.
This obfuscation and trickery regarding the authority's obligation to protect its tenants from harm has real life consequences.
No governmental agency or officials have released the names of any of these children who've tested positive for elevated blood-lead levels. But attorney Corey Stern of Levy Kronigsberg has assembled a list of children who've registered elevated levels living in NYCHA, and combined with The News' own list identifies a total of 28.
There's Makayla Robinson from the Linden Houses in Brooklyn who registered an elevated level of 12 at age 2. There's Kyan Dickerson of Red Hook Houses who registered a level of 12 at age 4. There's Leilani McClain of Pomonok Houses in Queens, who registered a level of 24 at age 2. There's Dakota Jones of the Fort Independence Houses in the Bronx with a level 45 at age 4.
"Our mayor has been steadfast in his position that no child was injured on his watch, and he has now been proven to be delusional or a liar," Stern said. "We now know — and he has known all along — that since 2012 more than 800 NYCHA children were, by definition, lead poisoned in public housing. New York City citizens should demand that he resign, immediately."
For NYCHA tenant Jonquella Wheeler, 30, these numbers are anything but abstract. Her youngest son Khemel Green tested at a level of 11 during a routine doctor checkup when he was 2 years old in 2012.
Wheeler, who's lived her entire life and raised two boys in the same fifth floor apartment in the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville, says shortly after she was told of her son's test results, the Department of Health inspectors showed up at her apartment and found the presence of lead paint there.
"They made me feel like if I sued them or anything like that they were going to kick me and my two children out. They made it a hush hush thing," she said. She is one of 20 tenants who have retained Stern's firm in the class action suit he's filed in Manhattan Federal Court.
Khemel is now 7 years old and in school, where he's been found to have learning disabilities that make it difficult for him to read and write.
"He was a normal baby and I see the difference between him and my older son. I see him not being able to grasp on to reading and writing," she said.
"We're talking about children. It's about other families going through the same thing. I don't want them to feel like they can't speak out and talk."