Thursday 1 December 2022
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Local Reports Would Do Well to Recognize Project Uplift

Op/Ed By Wallace Mabry


Wallace Mabry

Wallace Mabry

While Cleveland lauds Rochester’s lead-poisoning laws (Rochester’s lead-poisoning laws lauded in Cleveland, Democrat and Chronicle, October 27, 2015), the Democrat and Chronicle has seemed to pat itself on the back for publishing a series of stories about local lead poisoning horrors in the 1990s, including warnings from local physicians, researchers, and public-health advocates about the harm being done to young people, and urging a concerted action.

The publishing of the Democrat and Chronicle’s series, however, occurred some 30 years AFTER the initial finding of cases of lead poisoning in black children in the slums of Rochester’s Third Ward in 1964, and the subsequent, concerted work and efforts of a group of black and Hispanic youth working through an Urban League of Rochester youth program in 1968, called PROJECT UPLIFT, who set out to document individual locations where the problem existed.

David Wilson, professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, and vice president of the Rochester Committee for Scientific Information (RCSI), writing for Scientist and Citizen in 1968, reported that, on an impulse, driven by a motivation to gain “entrance into the arena of the really big community problems,” RCSI, acting on a presentation given by Dr. David Elwyn on lead poisoning in Chicago, selected to do a study in the Rochester slums where it was likely there was a lead poisoning problem.

George Berg, president of RCSI, appointed a chairman of RCSI’s new lead poisoning subcommittee, Dr. J.D. Hare, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Rochester Medical School.

Dr. Hare learned that, in the fall of 1964, doctors Evan Charney and Arthur Kopelman had carried out a study of lead poisoning in Rochester. RCSI, then, made a presentation to the general public of Charney’s and Kopelman’s findings.

RCSI submitted their report on the Charney and Kopelman findings to the Monroe County Health Department, and the health department never made the report public, nor did the health department do anything to try to solve the problem of lead poisoning in Rochester. 

The Charney and Kopelman report of September 1964 found “five cases of lead poisoning in a group of twelve children living in an apartment house in Rochester.  This stimulated Kopelman and Charney to attempt an estimate of the true prevalence of lead poisoning among children under five years of age in a slum area in Rochester’s Third Ward, a part of the city’s ‘Black Belt.’”

The report made five recommendations:

  • Screening of children for lead poisoning by the County Health Department.
  • Establishment of a blood lead testing service by the Health Department.
  • Treatment of recognized cases, and adequate testing of children exposed in the same manner or who lived in the same house.
  • Education of parents, doctors, and visiting nurses to the hazard of preschool children eating paint in slum buildings.
  • Slum clearance.

The report was submitted to the Monroe County Health Department in the winter of 1964-65. And, it did not produce any activity on the part of the County Health Department or the City Building Bureau. 

It was not until weeks before RCSI’s second report on the prevalence of lead poisoning in the Rochester slums that Professor Wilson contacted Dr. Walter Cooper, who directed him to David Anderson, deputy director of the Urban League of Rochester.

A contingent of PROJECT UPLIFT’s young staff members and youth were given an overview of the problems associated with lead poisoning, along with a demonstration of the methods used in testing for lead paint. They were given envelopes, and information sheets, for use in collecting samples.

Armed with that knowledge, and the motivation to get the documentation done, PROJECT UPLIFT staff and youth went forth into the Third Ward and the Seventh Ward, where the concentration of slum housing existed, and began the arduous tasks of going from house to house, being turned away at times, but continuing to knock on every door, and talk with tenants about the dangers of lead-based paint.

These youth, equipped with lead-based paint test kits, collected paint chip samples from the interior of these homes, and sent those chips and the results of their initial test results on to the Monroe County Health Department, and the City Building Bureau for further analysis and action.

The primary message these staff and youth delivered was clear, concise, and of paramount importance to the health and safety of young black children, many of whom were PICA identified, for those who crawled (and walked) and ingested peeling paint and flakes they encountered on the floors, walls and window sills of homes: lead poisoning negatively compromised life possibilities for black children already hampered by socioeconomic, political, and educational biases rampant in America

Subsequent to lead paint samples being taken from over 100 homes in the north end of the Third Ward, 27 samples were determined to be positive, after the samples were tested qualitatively by two means, (1) by treatment with sodium sulfide solution and, (2) by ashing a sample, and doing a benzidine spot test on the ash for lead. The 27 samples were then analyzed spectrographically by Dr. Luville Steadman of the medical school and Mr. John Temmerman of the County Public Safety Laboratory. Ten of the 27 samples were found to have contained lead as a major constituent (of the order of ten present by weight), “giving ironclad verification” of the qualitative tests.

Professor Wilson writes, “One of the results was that …Dr. Hare, our lead subcommittee chairman, was asked to supply the city building inspectors with instruction sheets for testing paint samples for the presence of lead. I wrote up a detailed description of our sodium sulfide procedure, and such testing will now be routinely carried out during the inspection of slum housing by the City Building Bureau.”

Dr. Evan Charney remarked, at a workshop in 1968, that, “By far the most important damage from lead poisoning is to the child’s central nervous system. The exact mechanism isn’t entirely clear yet, but certainly the increased lead burden is reflected in increasing cerebro-spinal fluid pressure. The pressure around the brain increases, and as this continues, the child becomes irritable and lethargic—later come coma, convulsions, and death.”

David Anderson later personally visited homes in the Third, Eleventh, Fifth, and Seventh Wards where he met with families and photographed conditions found in those homes. PROJECT UPLIFT youth continued to work with RCSI assisting in gathering urine samples of children in those homes, to ascertain their blood lead levels.

I believe it would do well for those who would take credit for a cause of action, to first check the history, as well as give credit to those committed staff and youth of the Urban League of Rochester’s now-defunct youth program, PROJECT UPLIFT.