Op-Ed: Lead poisoning should be covered by insurance

Senator Sean M. Ryan

June 25, 2022

Originally published in The Buffalo News on June 25, 2022.

Photo Credit: John Hickey/Buffalo News

The Buffalo News recently published an article about a local landlord and property manager who rented dozens of houses on the East Side of Buffalo with lead paint hazards, leading to the poisoning of at least 29 children.

Far too often, we see neglectful landlords who ignore tenants’ complaints about the condition of their home. Even when tenants have the time and money to sue the property owners to force action, there is no guarantee that it will result in the repairs being made; landlords like the one in the article often easily evade legal action.

Most landlords work diligently to maintain their properties, but unfortunately there are many who are neglectful – making lead poisoning a major problem in cities with old housing stock. By now, we all know about the lead crisis in Flint, Mich. What most people do not realize is that children in parts of Buffalo have been found to have an exposure rate eight times greater than the rate in Flint during their crisis.

Earlier this month, the Senate passed my bill (S.6721) to address this issue by bringing an effective New York City program to the entire state. The bill gives local governments the authority to appoint a receiver who will can initiate proceedings on behalf of tenants. If the court decides that the property in question is unsafe, the receiver is authorized to use rent money to make necessary repairs. I hope the bill will soon be signed into law.

For children, lead exposure often leads to health issues that detrimentally impact their development and can affect them for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown that kids with lead poisoning exhibit decreased IQ and cognitive function, developmental delays, and behavioral problems.

Ingestion of lead paint from poorly maintained residential housing units is the primary cause of lead poisoning in children. However, if a child in New York State is exposed to lead paint and becomes poisoned, the injury isn’t covered by homeowners’ insurance. In fact, current law allows insurance companies to specifically exclude lead poisoning from their policies.

That is why I have introduced another bill (S.3079A) that would help protect all renters exposed to lead paint. The bill would require insurance companies to include coverage for injuries or damage caused by exposure to lead paint in their liability policies, closing a loophole that most renters and landlords don’t even realize exists.

Kids throughout our state are suffering from lead poisoning and their parents are stuck paying the enormous and continuous medical costs. Requiring insurance companies to cover lead losses is an obvious step to help solve this problem. By incentivizing property owners to proactively take care of lead risks, it will help break the cycle of lead poisoning that has been so detrimental to the health of our kids.