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Families Sue New Haven Over Lead Exposure

Two young children waited months for New Haven public health officials to inspect their rental units. That’s after doctors found elevated levels of lead in their blood. Their families filed a class action lawsuit against the city on Wednesday.

Two-year-old Nyriel Smith sits with her mom outside their apartment in the neighborhood of Fair Haven.

Nyriel goes to a special class for kids younger than 3. It addresses developmental delays. Her mother, Nichelle Hobby, worries the delays stem from Nyriel’s blood lead levels. They reached up to 11 micrograms per deciliter.

“I didn’t know how serious it was until the doctors continuously told me that it kept going up and down, up and down, and the problems that any trace of lead can cause to a child.”

Credit Cassandra Basler / WSHU
Nyriel stands on the family's front porch. She attends a special preschool class for children with developmental delays.

Doctors introduced Hobby to Amy Marx at New Haven Legal Aid. Marx says city law makes the health department warn parents aand inspect for lead hazards. Officials then have to order any hazards abated and make sure it's done.

“The city has instead enacted a new rule for itself, which states they will take no such action unless the child first reports with 20 micrograms per deciliter.”

Marx says city law requires action when children have blood lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter. That's the threshold that the Centers for Disease Control recommends for a public health response. 

She says this lawsuit was her last resort to get the city to inspect Hobby’s rental home – and prevent further exposure.

“I am not a lead hazards inspection expert by any stretch of the imagination, but there are certain things that even lay people can look for.”

She points to some painted wood on Hobby’s front porch.

“So if you look at this column you can see the striped alligator skin and you can see the chips of paint falling off.”  

Marx says it’s costly for the city to manage lead hazards, but the cost of ignoring the problem could mean long-term harm for children.

The New Haven Mayor’s office and the Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comment.

**This article has been updated to reflect additional actions the lawsuit says are required of the New Haven Health Department by city statute.  

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.