Gryffin Wilkens-Plumley, Contributing Photographer

Last Friday, city and state officials held a press conference to announce a new federal grant for lead hazard reduction in New Haven. 

In attendance were Mayor Justin Elicker, Senator Richard Blumenthal, various city officials and a representative of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided the grant. According to city officials, the grant will provide for up to $15,000 in funding per qualified homeowner to eliminate dangerous lead from their homes, free training for 136 maintenance workers in lead-safe practices and a public education program to get the message out on lead poisoning prevention.

“Don’t believe the landlord. Don’t believe the landlord. Test,” Senator Blumenthal said. “It is easy and simple to do. Not a lot of time. Better to know than to be sorry.”

Elicker introduced the occasion by thanking the New Haven Health Department team and Senator Blumenthal’s delegation for pushing for the funding in the Senate.

Maritza Bond, director of the Health Department of New Haven, spoke about the accomplishments of her working team who will be handling the distribution and publicizing of the grant as well as the lead-safe training program. 

“I am only as strong as my team and I want to take this moment, although I am amongst great legislators and elected officials … to applaud my team for the wonderful work that they do,” said Bond.

Elicker spoke about how the threat of lead poisoning impacts New Haveners, especially children.

Elicker said that lead has been a challenge for New Haven in particular, due to its large share of housing stock pre-dating the 1978 federal ban on consumer use of lead-based paint. He also said that the city does not face issues with lead contamination in New Haven’s water supply. 

According to the state’s Department of Public Health, Connecticut ranked in the top third of all 50 states for reducing lead exposure from service lines, which are pipes connecting private homes to the public system.

Still, according to reporting by Connecticut Public Radio from February, unmapped lead service lines may pose a risk to residents across the state, particularly in New Haven.

Elicker said that the main risk of lead poisoning in the state is for children playing outside in dirt contaminated by chipped lead paint. He said that these children could then touch their mouths, track lead-contaminated dirt into the house or otherwise come into oral contact with chipped lead paint inside the home.

“If your house was built before 1978, my ask today for homeowners and landlords is to take advantage of the grants that we have available and to be proactive,” Bond said, “because we know that 70 percent of our properties are rental properties and that the likelihood that a child is going to be living in them is significant.”

The funds made available to the city by the HUD are expected to be able to pay for the lead remediation of about 200 units over the next three and a half years.

Only homeowners are able to apply for the grant.

Bond provided more information on the scale of the lead problem — she estimated that close to 55,000 homes in New Haven, a significant majority of homes in the city, were built before the 1978 anti-lead paint legislation.

Blumenthal, while he said he was grateful for the grant, expressed concern over a perceived discrepancy between the scale of the problem and funds available to address it.

“We have talked about lead for years and years. And now we’re beginning to do something, but we need more than $7.7 million, a lot more,” Blumenthal said. 

Bond also spoke about how certain neighborhoods, including Edgewood, the Hill, Fair Haven and Newhallville, in the city are more at risk for chipping lead paint

Blumenthal also spoke how lead exposure disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities across the country. 

“That is devastatingly unfair to kids in New Haven, in Waterbury, all across the state of Connecticut — half of all the kids who have lead poisoning live in the big cities, many are poor, many are Black and Brown,” Bluementhal said. “This issue is one of environmental justice, and frankly, racial justice.” 

The city will be following a proactive approach, according to Bond, who announced that her department began proactive testing of children’s blood levels last week, and that they would be prioritizing high-risk neighborhoods first.

Existing state and local legislation has mandated that pediatricians report blood lead samples over a legally specified limit. According to Bond, under-reporting can hamper the effectiveness of this policy.

If residents are unable to immediately remove lead from their home, New Haven’s Environmental Health Director Rafael Ramos suggested residents use wet cleaning and special precautions when working in the home.

In speaking with the News, Ramos said that he is excited for the program to also help provide training for regular people to spread the word about lead safe practices. He said the grant money earmarked for educational training will also help ensure that contractors are qualified to work on and supervise lead remediation project. 

“If they’re doing work in somebody’s house or their own house, they will be cognizant to put plastic down to protect the environment, to do the proper cleanup, to learn how to clean so that you don’t contaminate the environment and create a worse issue,” Ramos said.

New Haven homeowners can call 203-584-1646 to see if they qualify for grant-funded lead remediation.