Katrina Korfmacher on "Environmental Justice and Urban Housing: Lead Poisoning Prevention in Rochester, NY"

At Log Lunch on April 14, Kartrina Korfmacher, Associate Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester, spoke about her environmental justice work fighting lead poisoning in Rochester, NY.


Katrina Korfmacher inspects the new windows at the Log. No lead here!

As a student at Brown, Korfmacher dreamed of doing flashy environmental work, like saving Narragansett Bay or expanding the public trust doctrine to radically change environmental law in the US. Then she heard the stats about lead contamination in Rochester. In some neighborhoods, over 30% of children are lead-poisoned, while that figure stands at just 2% nationally. It was this inequality that made Korfmacher reroute her career.


Through her work at University of Rochester, Korfmacher now uses science in support of community action to change policy surrounding lead contamination.


Lead in paint, dust, and soil is now regulated federally by the Toxic Substances Control Act. According to Korfmacher, lead regulation started with a local ban in New York City in the early 1970s. At the time, Korfmacher said, it was the same story as tobacco: the danger was scientifically proven, but companies denied it (lead paint was even marketed to children!). While lead is no longer used in residential paint, many old buildings retain enough lead to continue poisoning children.

An advertisement for lead paint in the form of a child’s coloring book (circa 1920s) (source: Vintage Ads)


According to Korfmacher, elevated blood levels of lead have fallen from over 90% of the US population in the 1970s to less than 1% in 2010, as a result of regulation. She calls this a “public health success” but an “environmental justice failure, as lead poisoning cases are clustered by race, class, and geographic location.


Lead can be absorbed through skin or by ingestion. The worst way that children are exposed is by licking walls or eating paint chips, said Korfmacher. According to her, a “sugar packet” worth of lead sprinkled evenly around a large room would be enough to poison a baby crawling on the floor.


Lead affects the brain, kidneys, bones, and blood. According to Korfmacher, its most potent effect is on neuron branching in the brains of children. Lead poisoning can lower a child’s IQ by roughly seven points and cause attention span and behavioral control issues. Lead is stored in tissues, said Korfmacher, and because it changes the way the body forms, its effects cannot be undone.


To build a case for their policy recommendations, Korfmacher’s team calculated the costs of lead poisoning in Rochester, including medical costs, costs of special education and criminal justice, and lost future earning potential. They provided free home testing for high-risk families. They argued that the town “inspect buildings, not bodies,” and focus on lead poisoning prevention.


As a result of Korfmacher’s work, the Rochester Lead Law passed in 2006, requiring that lead checks be included in routine building inspections. Since then, the number of people with elevated blood levels in Rochester has declined by 89%—2.4 times faster than in New York State as a whole.


— Sophia Schmidt ’17