In 2010, Attorney Thomas P. Giuffra was hired by a New York City mother, Tiesha Jones, whose daughter was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Since 1999, Jones and her family had been living in the Fort Independence Houses, which were run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). During that time, Jones started noticing that her daughter was having difficulty with tasks she once did easily. She took her to a new doctor who ran a series of tests on the girl. When they got the results back, they told Jones to return to the hospital immediately.
The results revealed that Jones’s daughter had 45 micrograms per deciliter of lead in her blood, a highly dangerous level. It only takes 5 micrograms per deciliter for the substance to have neurological effects on children.
Effects of Lead Poisoning
If a person is exposed to lead over a long period of time, the mineral can build up in their bodies, affecting their mental and physical functions. Extremely high levels of lead in the blood can be fatal.
Often, the symptoms of lead poisoning aren’t apparent until the amount in a person’s system reaches dangerous levels. Children 6 years of age and younger are most susceptible to developing health conditions as a result of lead exposure.
In children, signs of lead poisoning include:
- Decreased appetite
- Delayed development
- Eating non-edible objects
- Hearing loss
- Stomach pain
- Trouble learning
- Weight loss
Jones had noticed her daughter was having trouble recognizing letters, writing things backward, and experiencing difficulty tying her shoes. These developmental changes worried Jones, especially after her daughter had been learning things quickly earlier on in life. That’s when she found out that her then-4-year-old had lead poisoning.
NYCHA Was to Conduct Lead Inspections at Buildings
People can be exposed to lead in numerous ways, the most common being living in an older building that used lead-based paint. In 1960, New York City banned the use of lead-based paints, which was nearly 20 years earlier than most other places. Every year, NYCHA is supposed to inspect apartments built before 1960 that house children under 6 years old.
The Fort Independence apartment Jones lived in was constructed after 1960, so NYCHA did not conduct inspections there. When the Department of Health (DOH) learned that NYCHA didn’t do a lead assessment at the building, it did its own.
The DOH found lead in the apartment and ordered NYCHA to do an abatement, which is a process that generally uses special techniques to permanently remove lead from contaminated areas. However, NYCHA did not conduct the abatement. Instead, it fought the order. Such action was typical for the agency. Back then, it contested about 95% of the orders it received from the DOH. By doing such, it gave them more time to do their own testing. Attorney Giuffra said on NBC 4’s ‘Question Authority’ that “what NYCHA does is they have their own inspectors go in, they send it to their own lab, and then they try to contest the lead findings.”
Listen to the NBC podcast here:
Because NYCHA failed to do the abatement, Jones was forced to take drastic action to ensure the safety of her family. She moved from the apartment she lived in for 14 years into a shelter, which had serious effects on her children.
In 2010, Jones sued NYCHA because it did not inspect her apartment and contested the DOH’s abatement order. She said it was a long and arduous process. NYCHA fought hard to refute her claims, suggesting that her daughter may have gotten lead poisoning from somewhere else because their tests showed that the mineral was not in her building. A jury ruled in Jones’s favor, awarding her $58 million in damages.
NYCHA Lax in its Legal Duties
According to the DOH, between 2010 and 2018, more than 2,000 other children living in NYCHA housing were diagnosed with lead poisoning. Since 2012, NYCHA had failed to conduct any building checks. As a result, the agency was assigned a Federal Monitor to make sure it fulfills its legal obligations for the next 20 years. However, even as early as this year, the monitor reported that NYCHA was making little effort to inspect buildings. At the beginning of 2019, 18 children had high levels of lead in their blood.
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