Rochester Recognized by EPA for Lead Abatement Efforts

Dec. 14, 2009

A partnership including the University of Rochester has been recognized for its efforts to reduce childhood lead poisoning in Monroe County. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning has received the 2009 Environmental Justice Achievement Award

 The EPA award was presented to the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, the University of Rochester, the City of Rochester, Monroe County, and Empire Justice in recognition of their “outstanding leadership in community-based efforts to prevent childhood lead poisoning in the City of Rochester.”  These and many other local groups have worked together since 2000 on a wide range of community-based efforts that led to a historic lead abatement ordinance approved by the City of Rochester in 2005.  

“I want to congratulate the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning on receiving this award and I am proud of the role that many University of Rochester faculty, staff, and students played in this community-wide effort,” said Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester. “While much work remains to be done, this effort is a true Rochester success story and it demonstrates what can be accomplished when science, community organizing, and political leadership come together and tackle health threats faced by our community.”

“This is a powerful example of the ability of science and outreach to inform and influence public policy decisions that improve public health,” said acting University of Rochester Medical Center CEO Mark Taubman, M.D., Ph.D. “While our physicians and scientists have played important roles in understanding and treating the health effects of lead exposure, it was clear that only a coordinated, community-based approach could address the root cause of this problem.”

The University of Rochester’s role in efforts to identify the health problems caused by lead exposure has spanned many decades and several departments. Research conducted in the 1990’s at the Medical Center that documented the impact of even slightly elevated blood lead levels on children’s cognitive development and IQ and directly linked this poisoning with the concentration of lead in the dust on the floors of their homes which informed federal standards for lead in dust. University of Rochester Medical Center researchers also participated in a landmark study published in 2003 that indicated that health problems arise in children even at blood lead concentration levels below the thresholds deemed “safe” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, Medical Center researchers are examining lead’s contributions to osteoporosis, fetal growth restriction, and brain cancer. 

The Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning was created in 2001 in the wake of studies that showed that children in the City of Rochester had elevated blood lead levels that were ten times the national average. University faculty and staff have been in leadership positions with the organization since its inception. The University has also been instrumental in several outreach programs including Get the Lead Out, a partnership with Orchard Street Community Health Center, local government agencies, and several community groups to test the homes of children at risk of lead poisoning, and a “lead lab” which demonstrated lead safe practices.

Over the ensuing years, University of Rochester faculty, staff, and students have worked closely with the county, city school district and neighborhood organizations to promote public awareness, provide assistance to landlords, homeowners and renters, and conduct lead screenings. Medical students, residents, and undergraduates have contributed through a wide range of internships and service activities over the past ten years. 

“From the very beginning the Coalition recognized that we know how to end lead poisoning,” said Katrina Korfmacher, Ph.D., community outreach coordinator for the University of Rochester Environmental Health Sciences Center. “We needed to find all the hazards that could pose a risk to children, fix them effectively, and check them regularly. But this could only be accomplished through a broad-based partnership that could carry forward the outreach, education, and policy efforts necessary to achieve these goals.”

The efforts of the Coalition culminated in the City of Rochester’s historic decision in December 2005 to approve an ordinance which requires inspections for lead paint hazards as a part of the city’s certificate of occupancy process.

In 2006, the University partnered with SWAN to create the Healthy Home which served as a model home for lead abatement and other household environmental threats. Over the past 3 years, some 3,000 tenants, property providers, health and housing professionals, and students have visited the home. Visitors have also included delegations from other communities that are seeking to duplicate the success of Rochester’s lead abatement efforts. The home recently announced that it will be closing at the end of the year, but its outreach and education functions will continue. 

“Through this community-wide advocacy for children, we have evolved and surpassed many other communities throughout the nation with respect to how we view and solve the health issues of our children,” said Ralph Spezio, a senior associate and community liaison in the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, former principal of Enrico Fermi School 17 in Rochester, and one of the founding members of the Coalition. “And our community’s heroic response and the courageous leadership shown by our elected leaders can serve as a model for other communities facing this threat.”