Talia Soglin

In a debate two weeks ago, Mayor Toni Harp and mayoral challenger Justin Elicker SOM ’10 FES ’10 each instructed members of the public to “read the ordinance.” The ordinance they were referring to was the city’s current lead law, and their verbal tussle centered around whether that law clearly defined when city officials must act when a child tests for elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Elicker soundly defeated Harp in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. But on Thursday evening, Harp’s proposed amendments to New Haven’s lead ordinance went before the Board of Alder’s legislation committee in a public hearing at City Hall. At the end of the meeting, committee members voted to table the proposed ordinance, meaning the bill will remain in committee for the time being.

The hearing began with interim Director of Health Roslyn Hamilton introducing the proposed ordinance. Hamilton said that the proposed amendment would “expand definitions and reduce ambiguity” in the law. 

But critics of the proposed ordinance say that the city’s existing law is already clear, and that amendments included in the proposal would relax rather than strengthen New Haven’s lead policies.

“This guts the law,” said New Haven Legal Assistance attorney Amy Marx in her testimony during the public portion of the hearing. “New Haven should stand proudly by its current law,” she added.

In New Haven, the primary source of lead poisoning comes from lead-based paint, particularly in aging homes. The Harp administration’s proposed ordinance comes at a time when the city is in the midst of a class-action lawsuit — filed by Marx and Shelley White, a fellow attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance — surrounding its lead policy. This summer, city officials admitted in court that they had relaxed New Haven’s lead standards in order to save money. Beginning in November of 2018, the health department had stopped inspecting the homes of children who tested with five micrograms of lead per deciliter or above, and moved to acting only when children tested at 20 µg/dl or above. Marx and White estimate that close to 300 children in New Haven have blood lead levels that fall between five µg/dl and 20 µg/dl.

The city’s existing lead law defines lead poisoning as 20 µg/dl or “any other abnormal body burden of lead as defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” The CDC uses a reference level of five µg/dl to identify children whose blood lead levels are “much higher than most children’s levels,” and has done so since 2012. In June, the judge in the class-action lawsuit ruled that because of its reliance on the CDC standard, New Haven’s existing lead ordinance defines lead poisoning as five µg/dl.

Harp has touted the new ordinance, which her administration submitted to the Board of Alders in August, as evidence that the city has taken steps in the right direction because the ordinance defines New Haven’s “actionable blood level” as five µg/dl.

On Thursday, Marx and others pointed to portions of the proposed ordinance which they say would loosen New Haven’s lead policies. For example, one section of the proposed ordinance reads that when the director of public health is informed of a child with an actionable blood level, they are “authorized” to conduct inspections of that child’s residence. In contrast, the current ordinance states that the director “shall issue an order,” when lead hazards are discovered in a child’s home, which Marx argued is a stricter standard.

Others noted that the amendments removed timelines from the current ordinance specifying how much time a landlord has to make and begin a process of abatement after lead hazards are discovered at a child’s home, and that the proposed ordinance would allow the mayor to appoint members of the Lead Paint Advisory Committee without going through the Board of Alders.

When questioned by Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand on the use of the word “authorize” instead of “require” in the amendments, Hamilton said that she did not view the ordinance as the place to detail city policies step-by-step.

“We want the policies to not be inside the ordinance,” Hamilton said.

Earlier in the hearing, Hamilton described how the health department has begun to coordinate with other city departments as well as with state and federal agencies on its lead policies. For example, she noted that the housing code unit of the Livable City Initiative would soon start recording the conditions of paint surfaces during their routine housing inspections, the results of which could then be made available to other departments in the city.

Marx said that the health department should not be handed discretion in how it deals with lead inspections and abatements.

“It’s giving permission to the health department to do nothing to protect the children of New Haven,” she said.

A number of parents of children affected by lead testified at the hearing. One parent, Rita Torres, said that her now-8 year old daughter tested positive for lead when she was one. Her home never got inspected, she said, and her landlord did nothing when she alerted him to her daughter’s blood tests. Torres urged the alders to “enforce what we have now,” rather than being “a little more lenient.”

“Don’t pass the buck, please,” she said.

During public testimony, Ward 21 Alder Steve Winter ’11 read a statement opposing the ordinance, which he said was on behalf of both himself and Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94.

After the hearing, Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen said the legislation would stay in committee under further information is available.

Talia Soglin | talia.soglin@yale.edu