The Toll of NYCHA’s Lead Lies, Part II: A Mother Fights for Truth as Daughter Struggles
Mikhaila Bonaparte, who lives in a Brooklyn public housing complex long ago deemed free of lead paint, recorded an off-the-charts blood lead level shortly before her third birthday. NYCHA denies there’s any lead in the apartment — even after health officials detected the toxin.
On Sunday, THE CITY revealed that at least 5,000 public housing apartments in complexes long ago deemed “lead free” contain lead paint — and introduced Mikhaila Bonaparte, who was born days before the New York City Housing Authority launched its lead coverup. Today we detail her mother’s fight to help her lead-poisoned daughter — and to wring the truth from NYCHA in the wake of a history of lies.
When Shari Broomes learned her 2-year-old daughter Mikhaila Bonaparte had dangerously elevated levels of lead in her blood, she did what any parent given bad health news about their child would do: She did research.
She visited websites. She read medical journal articles. She learned about the damage lead does to a young child’s brain, potentially hurting their ability to think and reason for years to come.
“After doing all my research as far as lead poisoning in children, I think I freaked myself [out] more — and worried about her and what would potentially happen to her in the future,” Broomes told THE CITY during a recent interview.
The 2016 discovery of Mikhaila’s severe lead poisoning came two months after the Daily News first raised questions about the New York City Housing Authority’s claim that it was performing all required lead paint inspections and cleanups.
And it came five years before THE CITY learned that thousands of apartments in developments long ago certified “lead free” by the authority were recently found to contain lead, thanks to a massive, ongoing re-inspection effort.
Among the complexes: Brooklyn’s Tompkins Houses where Broomes has lived since she was 11 and where now-8-year-old Mikhaila has resided since birth.
Case No 92950800
After delivering the lead poisoning news, doctors told Broomes to change her then-toddler daughter’s diet and to keep a close eye on her progress once she started school. For six months, Broomes also had to try and get Mikhaila to swallow a regular dose of ferrous sulphate to increase the level of iron in her blood, even though children that young aren’t routinely allowed to take it.
The medicine tasted terrible.
“It was so horrible giving her that medication,” recalled Broomes. “We were checking the lead levels every other week. It was just a lot of frequent doctor visits.”
And as they are required to do by law, the doctors at Woodhull Hospitals who had tested Mikhaila for lead immediately called the city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). That triggered a protocol to remove any potential threat from the apartment: test for lead, clean it up.
A DOHMH inspector arrived at Broomes’ eighth floor apartment in Brooklyn’s Tompkins Houses on Sept. 8, 2016, about a month shy of the child’ third birthday.
The health inspector brought along a small device known as an XRF meter that can detect the presence of lead wherever it is placed. In multiple spots randomly chosen by the inspector, including baseboards and pipe risers, the XRF device registered the presence of lead.
On each spot where the device got a positive reading, the inspector stamped one word in red: “LEAD.”
A week later, a health inspector tested the Gowanus Houses apartment of Broomes’ mother, Anthea Bishop. That was the only other place Mikhaila had spent significant time when her mother would drop her off there while she was at work at the Park Department. Inspectors detected lead along a window sill and three pipe risers.
Mikhaila’s lead poisoning now became an official Department of Health & Mental Hygiene case file. She was assigned Child ID Number 92950800 and the wheels of bureaucracy began to turn.
DOHMH sent “Orders to Abate Nuisance” forms to NYCHA, requiring the authority to “remove, correct and/or otherwise abate” the lead paint in both apartments — then submit dust-wipe test results documenting that the lead was gone.
NYCHA was given five business days to get this done.
‘No Positive Readings’
In New York City, the vast majority of landlords who receive “Orders to Abate Nuisance” notices simply bring in a qualified lead cleanup team and get the job done.
Not NYCHA. For years, NYCHA, the landlord to 400,000 New Yorkers, had enforced a policy of contesting every XRF lead test performed by city health inspectors.
The day after NYCHA received its “Orders to Abate” letter, an inspector with the Housing Authority arrived at Broomes’ apartment with a bagful of test tubes. He took tiny samples of paint from several spots near where the XRF device detected lead, and then left, records show.
Broomes said he didn’t hit every XRF spot.
In a report filed with NYCHA, the inspector wrote that he performed a walk-through of the apartment looking for paint chips and dust and found “four areas were identified for lead [testing] out of 115 total surfaces.”
He wrote that the tenant had told him she’d found her daughter eating paint chips off the floor, so he admonished Broomes “to refrain child from such activities.”
The inspector also claimed that he’d instructed Broomes “on different sources of lead, pathways to exposure and preventive measures that should be taken to prevent future exposure.” That, he contended, included “proper diet and good hygiene and medical followups to monitor child’s BLL (blood lead level).”
Broomes recalls the visit quite differently. She says the inspector said almost nothing while he was there, collected his samples and left.
A week later, the same inspector traveled to the Gowanus Houses and performed the same ritual in the apartment of Broomes’ mother, Bishop. He delivered all of his samples from both apartments to a lab in Midtown Manhattan and promptly received the results:
“No positive readings,” he wrote in his final reports on both Broomes’ and Bishop’s apartments.
A History of Deceit
For years, NYCHA managers have employed a variety of duplicitous ways to avoid what they’re obligated by law and regulation to do on the troubling issue of lead paint in its portfolio of more than 320 aging complexes in need of an estimated $40 billion in repairs.
In 2003, the city Council passed Local Law 1, requiring all landlords — including the city’s biggest, NYCHA — to conduct annual inspections of every apartment with presumed lead paint where a child under six lives.
If lead paint is discovered, Local Law 1 obligates property owners to hire workers certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to safely clean it up. One of Local Law 1’s sponsors was then-Councilmember Bill de Blasio.
Starting around 2010, senior management at NYCHA became aware that the authority wasn’t adhering to Local Law 1 and other federal HUD regulations requiring lead inspections. And in 2012, NYCHA simply stopped performing required annual lead paint inspections altogether — including in apartments with presumed lead paint where young children lived.
When inspections actually took place, they were supposed to be monitored by a supervisor certified by the EPA as having been trained in proper procedures for lead paint inspections and abatement.
But there were only a handful of EPA-approved supervisors. So NYCHA managers began forcing the few on the payroll to sign off on thousands of inspections of apartments the supervisors had never visited, the city Department of Investigation later found.
And when anyone — tenants, the press, elected officials — confronted NYCHA about this issue, officials’ go-to response was always the same: deny, deny, deny.
In 2015, the Daily News reported on the case of a child with high blood lead levels living in a Brooklyn NYCHA apartment. Just like with Mikhaila Bonaparte, city health inspectors found lead in the apartment. But NYCHA contested the result and claimed there was none.
The authority then sent out a statement to elected officials and tenant leaders claiming, “NYCHA pays close attention to lead paint risks” — and insisted that it was in compliance “with federal, state and city regulations concerning lead.”
This was a lie.
Struggling in School
Sitting at her kitchen table recently, Broomes described her efforts to make sure Mikhaila keeps pace in school.
Broomes said teachers noticed issues with Mikhaila in first grade “as far as paying attention in class and often drifting off into the distance while everyone is paying attention and engaging with her classmates and her teacher and stuff like that.”
To supplement what Mikhaila is learning in school, Broomes says she uses flashcards with her at home to focus on her reading and writing skills.
“I just got her report card. I’m actually concerned. I’m thinking of actually taking her out of that school,” Broomes said, noting that she’s discussed with her teachers the possibility of placing Mikhaila into an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) to give her extra support.
“She’s good at math and she’s picking up more of her writing, but she’s still at a Kindergarten level [on writing] — and she’s in the third grade,” Broomes said.
At that moment, Mikhaila bounded into the apartment, home from school. Days before she’d celebrated her eighth birthday with a lobster tail dinner at Red Lobster, and was riding high. She plunked down her backpack and responded when a visitor wished her a belated happy birthday.
“It’s still my birthday week,” she told the visitor, nodding at her mother.
De Blasio Kept News Quiet
Shortly before Broomes got the news about Mikhaila’s elevated blood-lead levels, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the most senior managers of NYCHA learned they had a problem regarding lead paint in public housing.
In late 2015, after the Daily News reported on the young girl with elevated blood lead levels, federal prosecutors opened an investigation into NYCHA’s management, subpoenaing thousands of documents regarding lead paint and other issues.
But in March 2016, when he was confronted about the federal subpoenas, when their existence became public, de Blasio insisted to the press that the authority’s managers enforced a “rigorous” regimen in place to inspect and abate lead paint.
About a month later, de Blasio secretly learned that wasn’t true.
Then-NYCHA Chairperson Shola Olatoye privately informed de Blasio that, for the prior five years, since 2012, NYCHA had not been performing inspections as required by Local Law 1, the measure he’d co-sponsored while in the Council. A month later, she let him know NYCHA was also in violation of federal rules requiring annual lead paint inspections.
At that moment, de Blasio could have amended his earlier statement that NYCHA was on top of its lead paint situation. Instead, he decided to keep what he knew hidden from the public and the tenants living in apartments with lead paint.
One of those tenants kept in the dark was Shari Broomes. Three months later, Broomes got the bad news about Mikhaila’s elevated blood-lead level.
Verdict Out on Many Apartments
Despite all the revelations about NYCHA’s duplicity, which led to the 2019 appointment of a federal monitor, the extraordinary re-inspection effort de Blasio ordered up in 2018 has yet to fully document the scope of lead paint in tens of thousands of apartments.
In fact, NYCHA officials have yet to reveal the extent of the problems with the original flawed protocol to declare thousands of units “lead free.” While NYCHA’s website reports that overall as of Nov. 18 its inspectors have visited 104,000 apartments and found lead in 23,000 re-tested apartments, it does not disclose how many of those units the authority had earlier declared free of lead.
THE CITY separated out data for the lead-free apartments that had been re-inspected and have actual test results as of Nov. 4. All told, 5,217 supposedly lead-free units have been found to contain lead paint, the analysis shows.
In some developments, more than 70% of the apartments deemed lead-free have been found to contain lead. In several “lead free” developments, half of the apartments where NYCHA has received lab results have registered the presence of lead paint.
As of Friday, lab results for 21,800 apartments — including thousands of purportedly lead-free units — remained in limbo, having been collected during inspections but not yet reported out by NYCHA.
At Linden Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, 1,025 apartments have been tested. Not a single lab result has been released. At Carver Houses in Upper Manhattan, 1,029 apartments have been tested, but only seven results have been released.
At the Forest Houses in Queens, tenant Eleanore Bumpurs’ daughter and son were both diagnosed with lead poisoning. As of Nov. 4th, NYCHA had tested 942 units there but released lab results for just 10 apartments.
Five of the 10 apartments tested positive.
On Friday, Rochel Goldblatt, a NYCHA spokesperson, explained in an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions about this delay: “XRF testing is a labor intensive process that includes many steps and we want to ensure the process is done correctly and we are not missing any data points. Once this process is complete, we submit the results.”
Last year, the City Council passed a law requiring that when apartments turn over, they must be tested for an even lower level of lead, dropping the standard from 1 micrograms per square centimeter to .5 micrograms per square centimeter. That will force NYCHA to retest thousands of apartments yet again — a process scheduled to begin Wednesday.
Goldblatt noted that the law only requires inspection under the higher standard for apartments at turnover, “but we are proactively prioritizing retesting units with children under 6.”
Clean-Up or Coverup?
The day Shari Broomes decided NYCHA was doing everything possible to avoid any responsibility for the lead poisoning of her child was the day not one but two NYCHA staffers showed up to inspect her apartment for lead for a second time.
This was November 2016, just before Thanksgiving — and weeks after the health department had said there was lead there and NYCHA had said there wasn’t. But here once again was the same lead NYCHA inspector who’d taken samples before, this time accompanied by a supervisor, records show.
The supervisor was carrying a white plastic jug with a label on it: “Lead-Kleen.”
This struck Broomes as odd, so she videotaped what happened next: The supervisor methodically mopped the floors near the baseboards and wiped down certain areas on the walls and baseboards with his Lead-Kleen. He followed up by vacuuming the area he’d just cleaned, the video, viewed by THE CITY, shows.
Then the inspector collected dust wipe samples from the now-spotless walls. This cleaning-before-testing choreography was repeated shortly after at Bishop’s apartment in the Gowanus Houses. The inspector would later report that the samples collected at both apartments yielded no positive readings showing lead present.
“They cleaned my entire apartment with a mop and bucket and I took a picture of it. It was stupid,” Broomes recounted. “I’m like, how are you going to find anything if you’re cleaning the areas you’re testing? I was like, why are you guys trying to cover this up?”
One year later, DOI released a blistering report on NYCHA’s pattern of falsely certifying the authority was in compliance with lead paint inspection laws. De Blasio continued to downplay the significance of the lies, telling the press, “Thank God there has not been harm done to any child because of the mistakes that have been made.”
NYCHA Delay Tactics
By then Broomes had filed suit against NYCHA, detailing her daughter’s lead poisoning and revealing the authority’s extraordinary effort to claim there was no lead in her apartment.
During depositions, the inspector who’d twice tested the family’s apartments conceded that the return visits to Broomes’ and Bishop’s apartments were highly unusual. It was, he said, the first time he’d ever done that in 17 years in NYCHA performing lead inspections.
Since the suit was filed, private sector lawyers hired by NYCHA have repeatedly delayed releasing records and fought to prevent Broomes’ lawyer, Adam Orlow, from interviewing NYCHA supervisors. In February, the judge ordered NYCHA’s lawyers to release Broomes’ and Bishop’s tenant folders.
Some of the documents raise questions about the inspections, including the work tickets for Broomes and Bishop’s apartments in which the NYCHA inspector uses almost exactly the same language to describe his interactions with the tenants during his visits. Broomes says his version of events is untrue.
As of last week, her lawsuit was pending in Brooklyn Supreme Court. Since NYCHA continues to insist there’s no lead paint present, neither apartment has been abated of lead paint.