A curious neighbor paid for an expert to test the parking lot where Jewish Home Lifecare plans to build a new facility, and found alarming levels of toxic lead
By Nora Bosworth
Nobody asked Martin Rosenblatt to protect the schoolchildren at the Upper West Side’s P.S. 163, but he may have done just that. The story begins with a nursing home, one very informed citizen, and a lot of paperwork.
Since 2008, the elder care company Jewish Home Lifecare (JHL) has been planning to erect a 20-story nursing home alongside a public elementary school on the Upper West Side. The tower would be built on West 97th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, on a parking lot that is now part of the Park West Village apartment complex, which borders P.S. 163.
Over the last several years, community members have organized to resist the development project for a wide array of reasons: fear of sending children to study amid a noisy, long-term construction zone, objections to the noise, dust and debris of such a project, increased traffic the nursing home would bring, and the loss of an above-ground parking lot.
Jewish Home Lifecare says their planned facility will transform the hospital-like feel and architecture of many nursing homes to a place that will make elderly residents feel at home. They hope their construction will provide “dignity and privacy” to clients.
Up until April of last year, all of the opposition facing the nursing home plan has been relatively standard backlash for a development project of this scale– with, granted, the added concern of the school’s welfare. And, if all had gone as planned, JHL would probably be beginning construction in Spring of 2014.
Enter Martin Rosenblatt, a resident who lives across the street from the proposed development site and a retired investigator, experienced with the hazardous effects of lead dust.
After going to meetings about the nursing home’s plans, Rosenblatt decided to test the parking lot for lead, just in case the future demolition site was home to hazardous chemicals. It wasn’t a random suspicion. Until the Clean Air Act of 1996, lead was a legal component of gasoline. Thus, in the past, when cars turned on, their tailpipes would sometimes emit combustion dust that was contaminated by lead. Rosenblatt figured that because the parking lot had been around for over fifty years, it was worth assessing.
Rosenblatt hired Laurence Molloy, an authority on lead to analyze soil samples throughout the grounds, along with 11 other New York City Housing Authority lots. Despite the two men’s hunches, what they found still took them by surprise.
On Wednesday evening, around 150 West Siders gathered in the auditorium of the Holy Name School on 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, to hear Rosenblatt discuss his discovery of toxic levels of lead beneath the proposed site for the high-rise nursing home.
Out of 100 samples of soil, the highest lead level of all was found in a hotspot at the West 97th Street location. The level of lead was at 1,044 ppm (parts per million); to put this number in context, the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for acceptable lead levels in soil areas on which children play is 400 ppm.
The health effects of lead exposure in children include behavioral disorders and learning disabilities. Lead becomes dangerous once unearthed, thus the proposed construction is a scare to many people.
“The soil definitely contains lead and is certainly a potential hazard to school children if blown onto the adjacent school grounds,” writes Molloy, in his letter testifying to his results from the Park West Village samples.
Rosenblatt also took it upon himself to send the lab results from West 97th Street to eleven different medical professionals, four of whom wrote back with their findings.
“According to the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, dispersion locally of these lead contaminated dusts, into academic and residential buildings nearby, can cause adverse health effects in children under 72 months of age, such as developmental-cognitive impairments, neurobehavioral disturbances, loss in IQ points and ADHD,” wrote John Rosen, a pediatrician and the Head of Environmental Sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In his letter to Rosenblatt, he adds that pregnant women are also at risk, as lead can damage the developing fetus.
Avery Brandon, whose asthmatic 5-year-old daughter currently attends P.S. 163, called the results “terrifying.”
“If there’s lead in the soil and they break ground, we have to move,” she said.
Brandon is grateful to Rosenblatt for his research.
“Without Mr. Rosenblatt, I’m not exactly sure where we would be right now,” she said. Molloy voiced a similar opinion.
“The average citizen doesn’t know about lead in a parking lot,” Molloy said in a telephone interview. “Wouldn’t even suspect it.”
Rosenblatt believes that if an environmental impact study is conducted and lead is found, the costs of removing the lead would be enormous. He says it is unclear which party would cover what he estimates would be an operation in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Moreover, according to Molloy, there is water beneath the lot, and if the water is also contaminated, then pumping it out would add greatly to the cost of cleanup.
As of now, it is unclear how the state and Jewish Home Lifecare want to proceed.
“JHL has adhered to all government regulations regarding site review and will continue to do so,” said Ethan Geto, a public affairs representative for JHL, in an email.
“Not having seen the analysis of lead contamination claimed in the study – or having it reviewed by an expert not associated with advocates for blocking the project – it is not possible to know at this juncture if any further environmental review is warranted.”
At the meeting, Rosenblatt and the director of the Park West Village Association, Maggi Peyton, urged attendees to sign a petition that demands an environmental impact study. Residents at the meeting expressed hope that these latest findings will make a difference, along with a determination to be heard.
“In terms of politicians,” said Patricia Loftman, a resident of Park West Village for the last forty years, “I don’t think we will ever forgive them if they don’t do the right thing on this issue.”
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