Chipped Away Spotlight Team: Chipped Away

Part One of a Newhouse Spotlight Team Investigation

JAMIE KORENBLAT: Now to a four month Newhouse Spotlight Team Investigation
We spent months looking into the danger lead poisoning prevents for local families, particularly children and the risk of permanent brain damage.

JOHN PERIK: The danger is hiding in their homes. Our team dug into years of records, went looking for landlords who have failed to address the issue, and tonight we’re raising questions about what resources the county and local officials have committed to help fixing the problem.

JOHN PERIK: Paint is a way to spruce up a house but what’s in these cans can pose a potentially life altering risk.

RACHEL HOWELL: it’s frustrating.

JOHN PERIK: And the most vulnerable in our community are at the highest risk.

DARLEEN MEDLEY: This is destroying kids

JOHN PERIK Serving as an invisible poison, disproportionately impacting low income families

RACHEL HOWELL: their health ain’t up for sale.l

DARLEEN MEDLEY: It’s just sad it’s heartbreaking

JOHN PERIK: This is a very complicated issue and not one easy to fix that has persisted for decades in our area with an older housing stock. And it’s exactly because this issue still persists and the communities that it impacts that over four months we dedicated a full team of spotlight journalists to investigate.

RACHEL HOWELL: It don’t make sense that people’s lives are torn up and destroyed and the landlords get away with it.

JOHN PERIK: Rachel Howell, lives here on the NorthSide of Syracuse with her daughter and 3 granddaughters. If you walk through her front door, just look down that’s lead paint. It covers her floors, kitchen and it’s even here in the bedroom.

RACHEL HOWELL: it’s the mothers that have to sit here and endure with it and do everything they can to get them help and then they can’t even help these babies who are suffering.

CARLA MASON: The health department failed me. Code Enforcement failed me and the landlord failed me.

JOHN PERIK: Carla Mason used to live here on 816 South Ave in Syracuse, but within these walls her children were poisoned from lead. Mason then moved to Ohio, she says she couldn’t find any affordable housing in Syracuse without the threat of lead poisoning.

CARLA MASON: So I am here in Ohio, by myself. With no friends, no family. Nothing, just me and the children are here.

JOHN PERIK: And in many of these cases, the poisoning could have been prevented, if landlords all took proper action to remove the lead.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: if the paint is peeling, or whatever, stuff like that, I try to keep them away

JOHN PERIK: This woman here on Fitch Street didn’t want to tell us her name or show her face because she says she’s worried her landlord Todd Hobbs would seek retaliation against her for talking to us. Hobbs was recently sued by the Attorney General’s Office, for repeated lead violations. The lawsuit states 11 children were poisoned in his properties. We gave him a call using the number listed on the lawsuit. The AG also sued landlord William D’Angelo, the lawsuit states he poisoned 15 children all were in low-income family homes. Using the address listed in the lawsuit, we paid D’Angelo a visit. That’s Finn Lincoln, he’s with us. D’Angelo didn’t open the door, we left a note, and haven’t heard from him.

DARLEEN MEDLEY: You’re poisoning my kids love. You’re ruining my kids what else more do you think you can do to me.

JOHN PERIK: Darleen Medley is also a Syracuse mother struggling with kids who have been poisoned by lead. Just take a look at her children during our interview with her, they couldn’t stay still, Darleen says her son’s adhd is a result of being poisoned by lead…

TRAVIS HOBART: The long term effects that we worry about most are brain affects. Most children may have learning and behavior problems, attention deficit problems.

JOHN PERIK: Doctor Travis Hobart is the medical director of the Central and Eastern New York lead poisoning resource center, he tells us in the city of Syracuse, many of the people impacted by lead are low-income and predominantly black families, many living in these area codes and doctor Hobart says he believes racially segregated housing practices during the 1930s and 1940s contributed to this issue.

TRAVIS HOBART: those neighborhoods where black people were basically forced to live, you know, 80 years ago. 90 years ago are still the same neighborhoods today where we see the highest levels of lead, so this is unfortunately a carryover of prior racism.

JOHN PERIK: Using the Onondaga County Health Department’s lead poisoning data among children, Our Spotlight team discovered last year in the city of Syracuse of the children who were seeking to get tested for lead poisoning, black children were nearly twice as likely than white children to have elevated blood lead levels. Our team also found, in 2023, the 13203 zip code had the highest percentage IN OUR AREA of children testing with elevated blood lead levels and nearly half of those children are black.

RYAN MCMAHON: There’s been a lot of discussion in our community over the topic of lead the issue of lead is serious.

JOHN PERIK: And as for what Onondaga County has done over the past decade there’s been a long list of financial allocations into the county’s yearly budget to fix the lead issue: including a 3.7-million-dollar allocation in 2022, a 5-million-dollar allocation in the 2023 budget, and a 2.5 million dollar allocation in the 2024 budget, all additional funding towards tackling lead. But the funding hasn’t only been local.

RYAN MCMAHON: Our team has worked diligently to use federal grant dollars to abate lead throughout our County.

JOHN PERIK: According to the County Executive, in 2020, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the county 5.6 million and the city of Syracuse 4.1 million all for lead prevention, this coming a year after the county exec says he’s partnered with the city to help grant lead inspections.

RYAN MCMAHON: We will invest in a mobile testing van that will allow our staff to drive to a child’s home to provide lead testing.

JOHN PERIK: And this is the lead testing van, it’s one of the few pieces of evidence that the county has right now that show dollars have been spent, not just allocated, on the issue. Over a series of weeks, two of our reporters sent a number of detailed emails and text messages to the county with written questions about how the millions – even some of it – has been spent. We also asked for an interview with the county executive which we did not get. We never could extract a figure about that spending making the clear distinction between allocated and spent. One message to us from the County Executive’s office read: “we spend money every single day on our lead efforts.” Another raised the pandemic which began in March 2020 as a reason allocated dollars haven’t been turned into spent dollars. And none of this is sitting too well with the grandmother Rachel Howell, who we introduced you to earlier.

RACHEL HOWELL: We’re supposed to be in the county where the children come first but it’s not coming first the dollar is coming first.

JOHN PERIK: To go even more in-depth on the story our Newhouse Spotlight investigators Finn Lincoln and Lilli Iannella took a further look into the county’s response as well as the lack of action from landlords. You can find more about our findings on NCC News dot online. I’m John Perik, for the Newhouse Spotlight team.

                                       Video, audio and digital news investigation                                                                                 by Lilli Iannella, John Perik, Julie Gilchrist and Finn Lincoln

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC NEWS) — On a typical day, Rachel Howell is a caregiver, looking after her three grandchildren. At the same time, Howell finds herself taking care of something else— painting over the peeling lead-painted walls of her northeast Syracuse residence she has spent the past 12 years living at, and getting into arguments with her landlord. 

“It doesn’t make sense that peoples’ lives are torn up and destroyed, and the landlords get away with it, because it’s the mothers that have to sit here and endure with it and do everything they can to get them help,” Howell said. 

Howell believes lead poisoning is the culprit in her grandchildren’s developmental delays and is in the process of getting all of them tested. On top of this, she explained, getting help to remove lead from her residence hasn’t been easy. 

That’s why Carla Mason fled out of Syracuse to Ohio. But not everyone, like Howell, who lives in the area of Syracuse where children face the highest rate of lead poisoning, can leave. 

HERE’S PART TWO: Cost of a Child’s Brain: How Some Landlords Are Perpetuating Childhood Lead Poisoning

In 2023, about one in 10 children tested for lead poisoning in Syracuse had elevated blood lead levels, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as being higher than most children’s levels across the nation. 

While this number has slowly decreased over the past decade, according to local trend data from the Onondaga County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, Syracuse today is still seeing tested children have elevated blood lead levels that are over ten times higher than the rest of Onondaga County and around five times higher than the average in New York State from 2012 to 2020, excluding New York City.

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According to the CDC, there is no safe blood lead level, and even low levels of lead in children’s blood can cause developmental delays, difficulty learning and behavioral issues, which can be permanent and disabling. Children younger than six are more likely to ingest lead dust due to their hand-to-mouth behavior, the CDC says, and risk factors also include peeling paint in buildings built before 1978, soil near exposed lead and water from lead pipes.

For instance, almost a decade ago, Flint, Michigan declared a state of emergency after a switch of municipal water supply caused pipes to corrode and leach lead into the drinking water. Just over 3% of children tested had elevated blood lead levels after being exposed to this lead in Flint. In 2023, Syracuse had almost three times the amount of lead poisoned children.

Sandra D. Lane, a professor of public health and anthropology at Syracuse University and at Upstate Medical University, has spent decades researching the severity and impact of lead poisoning on community members in Syracuse. Her research from 2008 shows the consequences of lead poisoning cost Onondaga County at least $500,000 annually in elevated Medicaid, teen pregnancy, criminal justice and special education costs, an amount she said is likely more now in 2024.

Activists, county health department officials and researchers like Lane say the county is making progress in combating the lead poisoning crisis in Syracuse, but they emphasize the inequitable effects it has had on people of color and low-income communities in the city. 

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According to lead poisoning data by race, Black children suffer the most in Onondaga County, and families struggle to confront exposure to lead before it’s too late. In some cases, families aren’t even aware of the issue in the first place.

Audio: Learn more about the lead issue in an explainer by Julie Gilchrest

Julieanne Gilchrist: Children in Syracuse are being poisoned by lead at an alarming rate compared to the rest of the country.

Julieanne Gilchrist: According to the Onondaga Health Department, 9.26% of Syracuse children tested in 2023 were shown to have levels over 5 micrograms per deciliter,, which is what they consider an elevated blood lead level. .

Julieanne Gilchrist: Dr. Sandra D. Lane explained how Syracuse children, who are most heavily impacted by lead poisoning, are getting exposed.

Dr. Sandra D. Lane: “On average, 500 to 600 kids are poisoned every year, by the paint in their houses, from the under layers of paint, especially on window sills, door frames and porch rails.”

Julieanne Gilchrist: This is just in the city of Syracuse alone.

Julieanne Gilchrist: Kiara Van Brackle, a PHD student studying physiology at SU, details how lead poisoning affects children’s brains.

Kiara Van Brackle: “It affects the brain, specifically the frontal lobe areas, it affects inhibition, it affects executive functioning, so where we would have things in the inside of us that say hmm maybe this isn’t a good idea.”

Julieanne Gilchrist: Syracuse’s lead issue is most prominent in houses that were built before 1978, which is when the federal government banned consumer use of lead-based paint. In Syracuse, a vast majority of houses were built prior to the ban.

Julieanne Gilchrist: Many of the older houses that contain lead paint are being rented out to people in poverty. This is because of an economic imbalance. The old houses are cheap, so impoverished people rent them because they have no other option, and it disproportionately affects people of color. This is part of the reason why data shows they are being exposed to lead at a higher rate than white people.

Dr. Sandra D. Lane: “So if you just look at the Black children and the white children in their analysis, the Black children have almost twice as much lead poisoning as the white children.”

Julieanne Gilchrist: While older housing is part of the reason why people of color are being poisoned at a higher rate than white people, that is not the sole cause, says Dr. Lane.

Dr. Sandra D. Lane: “So it is older housing built before 1978 when they prohibited lead based paint in housing. But it’s not just older housing. But the places where the worst lead poisoning is are places that are directly chronologically impacted by redlining.”

Julieanne Gilchrist: Redlining was a racially discriminatory housing policy that led to the destruction of the 15th Ward. Redlining disallowed community members in the 15th ward from getting grants that would allow them to afford nice homes. The ward was a cultural hub for the Black population in Syracuse and redlining left housing in the area in the hands of landlords who brought up the properties that those who once lived there could no longer afford.

Julieanne Gilchrist: Darrell Buckingham, the point person of the LeadSafeCNY initiative and interim chair of its coalition, that is looking to decrease childhood lead poisoning in Syracuse, says that many landlords are not being honest about the lead that is in these homes.

Darrell Buckingham: “When you were dealing with a tenant who was not well knowledgeable about lead, who was dealing with other issues, you know, in terms of quality of life, that’s not something you think about at the time. And you don’t think about lead until it’s too late, unfortunately.”

Julieanne Gilchrist: Palmer Harvey, Onondaga county legislator and co-founder of the Syracuse tenants union, says landlords know what they are doing.

Palmer Harvey: “My opinion is you should not have the right to rent out anything, if you don’t keep it in good condition.”

Julieanne Gilchrist: Landlords are a big part of the lead issue in Syracuse, especially since they are capable of eradicating the issue or at the very least, informing people about the lead inside the property.

Julieanne Gilchrist: The damage done to the brains of those who are exposed to lead negatively impacts their education and decision making skills, which can strip them of their futures, according to a 2023 research study done by Dr. Lane.

Julieanne Gilchrist: Dr. Lane’s research led her to believe that lead poisoning is directly related to other prominent issues in Syracuse, like violence and low testing scores in school.

Dr. Sandra D. Lane:.”That’s where the poisoning is. That’s where the gunshots are. That’s where the school failure is highest. When those three things, gunshots, school failure and lead poisoning and female headed households or single headed households, those are all connected.”

Julieanne Gilchrist: There is a cyclical nature to lead poisoning and its impact on the people who are exposed to it, and it starts with redlining

Lane, along with Travis Hobart, the medical director of the Central and Eastern New York Lead Poisoning Research Center, said not everyone who needs testing in the county is getting tested, meaning numbers could potentially be even worse.

Hobart said only 70 to 80% of children are getting tested, and he suspects those not tested to be the ones who can’t access a doctor. 

“I actually worry that those kids not tested are probably more likely to have lead exposure because they have those socioeconomic difficulties,” Hobart said. 

Jessica L. Vinciguerra, the director of lead operations at the Office of Onondaga County Executive, said the county has been focused on using funding to get to “the root of the problem, which is the housing structures themselves.”


For decades, one thing has been clear– the same zip codes in Syracuse have faced higher rates of lead poisoning than others, Hobart explained, and he thinks racially segregated housing practices from the 1930s and 1940s are a contributing factor. 

In 2023, Black children were almost twice as likely to have elevated blood lead levels when testing for lead poisoning compared to white children in Syracuse. 

What makes the issue even more complex, Lane emphasized, is how lead poisoning hasn’t been understood as a racial disparity issue.

“Kids don’t get poisoned because of racism exactly. They get poisoned because the context that they live in is poorly maintained because of discrimination,” Lane said. 

In 2023, the zip code that faced the highest percentage of children testing with elevated blood lead levels was 13203 on Syracuse’s northeast side, where Howell and her family live. Of those testing with elevated lead levels in 13203, over 45% were Black children. Yet Black children make up just over a quarter of that zip code’s population.

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Howell’s residence is among the over 94% of housing units built in 1979 or earlier in her census tract, meaning her family faces a higher risk of exposure to lead.

Debra Lewis, the director of the Onondaga County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program and Healthy Homes Initiative, said the county’s historical data related to race and place shows overlap of elevated blood lead levels with socio-economic factors like high concentrations of poorly maintained rental properties, high poverty rates and families relying on one or more benefits. 

“The census tract maps, I think, are pretty telling, in that the areas of concern to us have been consistent over a long period of time,” Lewis said. 

It’s zip codes like 13203 that also face some of the highest childhood poverty rates across Syracuse. New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said one in four Syracuse families lived in poverty in 2021, a rate higher than any other large city in New York State. These rates, he said, present barriers to healthy child development.

Kiara Van Brackle, a clinical neuroscientist and health policy activist at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, said issues of healthcare access and education make it even more difficult for families to understand lead poisoning, get tested and receive medical help. 

“When you live in a zip code that is known, historically known, to be decimated and designed in that way, have you ever known fairness?” Van Brackle said. 


Van Brackle has examined the brains of lead poisoned children and said lead poisoning affects their ability to learn, including reading ability. 

In the Syracuse City School District, eight in 10 third graders scored below grade level on ELA testing in the 2022-2023 academic year compared to five in 10 across all of New York State.

Even prior to the pandemic, which Lane said caused difficulty reading in a lot of children, the majority of children scored below grade level. 

“Reading builds on itself over time in education, and the kids who fail third grade reading are facing a very different life,” Lane said.

Although Mason and her family left Syracuse, her son still faces the effects of lead poisoning till this day, especially when it comes to learning. Mason said her son, who is six years old, is still learning to be potty-trained, and he struggles to remember words he learned the day before.

Mason was informed about lead poisoning and asked questions. Many are not. 

Lewis said the biggest challenge the Onondaga County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has faced is getting resources and information to families that need it and in ways they can access it. She said the program is increasing its use in social media and continues to reach out to new partners to help reach families who otherwise wouldn’t get the information.


While families like Mason’s and Howell’s notice behavioral changes in their children, others don’t see symptoms and only find out their child has lead poisoning by getting a lead test. This is exactly what happened to J.B. McCampbell, the chief communications officer at 100 Black Men Syracuse.

“We had no idea, the same as I’m sure I think a lot of people. We think we keep a clean home, but there is lead dust that you may not even notice,” McCampbell said about his one-year-old daughter.

Some, like Darlene Medley, the West Branch Leader at Families For Lead Freedom Now, saw the signs of lead poisoning and went ahead to get her children tested. She got them tested through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides health care and nutrition needs for low-income women and children.

Others may struggle to access lead testing, Hobart described. He said pediatricians have the primary responsibility for testing and said the county’s mobile lead testing van was introduced to “find those kids that fell through the cracks,” or those who don’t regularly see a doctor or have any kind of health care provider.

The county started testing children in the van in August 2023, Lewis said. Recently, at a lead testing event on April 27, the unit was used to share resources with families, she explained. 

“It’s one part of the solution to get the children tested,” Lewis said. “We are a piece of the puzzle, we are not the entire solution.”


During the past few years, Onondaga County has set aside millions of dollars for lead poisoning prevention efforts, hazard reduction and testing in their yearly budgets. According to County Executive meeting minutes, Onondaga County allocated $8.7 million toward tackling the lead issue between 2022 and 2023 and proposed allocating $2.5 million in 2024. 

The County Executive didn’t confirm or deny if they know how much of the additional allocated local funding has been spent, but Executive Communications Director Justin Sayles said  “we spend money every single day on our lead efforts.” 

Melanie Drotar, the county’s director of public health communications, said due to the pandemic and “necessary engagement of community partners,” local funding couldn’t be spent until the last 18 to 24 months. 

“Those dollars were not able to be spent as quickly as we would have liked,” Drotar said. 

Some of the funding has been spent on contractor recruitment and training, remediation of lead in homes, awareness campaigns and to create additional staffing to work on lead efforts, Drotar said. 

Under federal grants, like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) home repair grant, which families can apply for to remove lead from their property, 156 units have been remediated since January 2020, according to the County Executive, and an additional 80 have been approved for remediation. This comes after Onondaga County was awarded $5.6 million from the U.S. HUD in 2020. Less than a year before this award, the U.S. HUD partnered with the City of Syracuse and awarded $4.1 million.

One of the biggest hurdles, County Executive Ryan McMahon said in a State of the County Address on March 13, has been finding EPA lead-certified contractors. Since July 2023, 159 individuals have received EPA Lead Renovation Repair and Painting (RRP) training, according to the County Executive.


Hobart said finding solutions to combat the lead poisoning issue in Syracuse is one that requires a collaborative approach by many stakeholders to combat, including landlords, government agencies, politicians, programs, teachers, doctors and the families impacted by lead poisoning themselves. 

All of these people are brought together through the Lead Safe CNY Coalition, Hobart explained, which according to the County Executive had its first planning meeting in 2022. “The resulting synergy allowed for education efforts, blood lead testing promotion, contractor training and outreach, and data research,” according to the County Executive. Hobart, as well as Families For Lead Freedom Now and Upstate Hospital make up some of the 100 members of the coalition, Lewis said.

In looking forward to address the issue, Hobart emphasized the importance of removing lead before children can be exposed to it in the first place.

“The way we’re addressing this now, or we have been historically addressing this, is by testing the children, not testing the homes. So we’re using the kids like a canary in a coal mine to find the problem,” Hobart said. “What I would like to see more often is– let’s test the homes and make sure those kids never lived there to begin with, or the home gets fixed before the kid lives there.”

PART TWO: Cost of a Child’s Brain: How Some Landlords Are Perpetuating Childhood Lead Poisoning

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