Salvatore Polizzi stood on the side of Knickerbocker Avenue wearing rubber gloves and holding an Amazon delivery bag that encased a package far different than its original freight.

One by one, he carefully removed thin, green and orange fragments from the package, placing them down on an extra pizza box he had grabbed from his restaurant, Tony’s Pizzeria. His gloved fingers were coated in a fine dust material that had come off from the fragments.

“This, this is what we’re worried about,” he said as he held out his dust-covered hands. The items he was removing from the bag were paint chips that he had found on the streets and sidewalks under the M line, which runs just over 100 feet from his restaurant.  

Polizzi has been an outspoken voice over the presence of lead paint shedding from elevated MTA structures in Bushwick, going as far as sending samples to a laboratory for testing.

Additionally, a 2018 bill – drawn up in response to a similar concern in Jackson Heights, Queens – was intended to mandate testing at all MTA above-ground stations, trestles and tracks for the presence of lead. While it was reported this bill was passed, the language of the final legislation was stripped. Now, the MTA says it will be repainting the structures in the coming months, but it has failed to acknowledge the potential presence of dangerous levels of lead shedding from the structures onto Bushwick streets for years.

Concerns of Lead Paint in Bushwick Grow

Last year, Polizzi collected material from the sidewalk and street at three separate locations: the corner of Knickerbocker and Myrtle, Myrtle and Wyckoff, and Myrtle and Broadway. He sent the samples to Schneider Laboratories Global, a testing laboratory in Richmond, Virginia.

All three samples returned dangerous levels of lead, with the highest level – taken from material gathered at the Myrtle and Broadway station – measuring 63,000 parts per million (ppm), 12.6 times the 5,000 ppm limit usually necessitating abatement. The limit modern day standards allow for lead in paint is just 90 ppm.  

Paint chips collected by Salvatore Polizzi.
Paint Chips collected by Polizzi. Photo by Kyle Andrew Smith. 

According to public health experts, high levels of lead in paint, even in outdoor settings, can pose a serious threat to public health.

“Lead is not just solid; it doesn’t just lie on the ground. [If] a car goes over it, it becomes dust, it becomes inhalable,” said David Rosner, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Rosner is the author of “Lead Wars, The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.”

As the JMZ lines run over the highly trafficked Myrtle and Broadway Avenues in Bushwick, there is concern of lead becoming pulverized and sent into the air by vehicles.

“Any and all findings of lead should be taken seriously, and what we’ve seen along the JMZ line is no exception. We know the harmful impacts of lead exposure, so I am absolutely concerned,” said District 34 City Council Representative Jennifer Gutiérrez.

Lead paint exposure is of particular concern for children, causing damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavioral problems and hearing and speech problems, according to the CDC.

There is no safe level at which children can be exposed to lead.

Several schools and medical facilities are located under the lines with extensive erosion visible from the street, including Wyckoff Pediatric Care Center, a children’s hospital run by Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. Wyckoff Heights Medical did not respond to request for comment.

Exterior of the Wyckoff Pediatric Care Center on Myrtle Avenue.
Wyckoff Pediatric Care Center on Myrtle Avenue. Photo by Kyle Andrew Smith. 

“If you go right to the pediatric center, look up, you’ll see chips, you’ll see the actual paint chipping off. It’s sad. There are a lot of schools in the area, this is a huge concern,” said Polizzi. “If you come here on a weekday, on a Friday, you’ll see all the kids that are coming out of school that are hanging around in the area.”

According to Polizzi, he became concerned with the potentially hazardous nature of the paint fragments when he began work with RiseBoro and Community Board 4 in 2020 to revitalize the plaza on the corner of Knickerbocker and Myrtle. He began noticing the paint fragments lying on the ground and recalled community outrage in 2017 in Jackson Heights after it was revealed that high levels of lead-based materials were falling to the streets below.

Outrage Over Lead Paint in Jackson Heights

In 2017, District 9 International Union of Painters and Allied Trades made a consequential announcement. It had found lead levels of 244,000 ppm in samples of paint taken from the structure of the 7 train in Jackson Heights, far above the limits that usually necessitate abatement.   

A class action lawsuit was filed in response by Jackson Heights residents and business owners which accused the MTA of “wrongfully, knowingly, deliberately, intentionally and as a matter of policy” allowing lead-based paint to fall to the streets under the elevated structures in the neighborhood.

Following the public outcry, the MTA began a two-year long, $43 million project that would strip the paint completely off the structure rather than painting over it, according to former NYC Transit Authority President Andrew Byford.

While the region of track that was identified as problematic was rehabilitated, the question arose as to whether this was an issue isolated to Jackson Heights. 

“The lead paint could potentially be falling off of every elevated track throughout the city, not just on the 7 [line],” said Dr. Morri Markowitz, the director of Lead Poisoning Treatment and Prevention Program at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in a 2017 New York Post article.

Legislation was introduced by the late state senator Jose Peralta and State Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz that would require an extensive study to be conducted with the aim of understanding the extent of lead paint on elevated subway tracks and stations across the city.

An Important Law Quietly Stripped

“The idea that lead paint chips (or other pieces of equipment) are falling off every time a train goes overhead is deeply unsettling,” said Assemblymember Dinowitz in a written statement to Bushwick Daily. “We (myself and the late former state senator Jose Peralta, whose district included the 7 train) wanted to make clear whether this was something that is unique to the 7 train or if it was ubiquitous throughout the city.”

The bill brought forth by the assemblymember and late senator was comprehensive. Bill 5754–A would have required the MTA and the NYC Transit Authority to work in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health to conduct a full study of New York City’s vast network of elevated transit structures to determine the extent of hazardous lead and the degree to which the MTA complies with federal and state air quality laws and regulations. It would make recommendations for necessary lead abatement on MTA owned or controlled structures across the city.

The bill passed unanimously in the State Senate and was passed in New York State Assembly 142-1 with the initial language still intact.

While the bill was passed into law after Dinowitz and Peralta insisted that the governor sign it, a review of the final legislation showed the language of the final bill had been significantly altered from what was initially introduced. 

In an approval memorandum for the bill signed by former governor Andrew Cuomo, much of the language demanding thorough citywide lead testing on all elevated trestles was stripped.

“This bill would direct the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and New York City Transit Authority (NYCT), in consultation with the Department of Environmental Conservation, to study any lead abatement that has occurred at above-ground stations, trestles and tracks, and to make recommendations regarding the need for further remedial efforts,” reads the former governor’s memorandum. “For decades, however, the MTA has funded efforts to safely remove degraded paint from its elevated tracks, trestles and stations, including those located on subway lines and commuter railroads.”

“Rather than conduct a new study, the Executive has secured an agreement with the Legislature to pass legislation in the upcoming session that will require the NYCT to provide an annual report identifying all current or planned capital projects involving the removal of existing lead-based paint from above-ground tracks, trestles and stations. For each project, NYCT will describe the work to be performed and the measures that will be taken to protect the public’s health and safety,” concluded the memorandum. “On this basis, I am signing this bill.”

When asked why the former governor made the sweeping changes to the bill, Dinowitz responded that he was unsure.

“I am always disappointed when the Executive Branch requests a change to my legislation. If I had wanted the bill to be for annual reports of ongoing capital projects, then that’s what I would have drafted up,” said Dinowitz. “My top priority is that all New Yorkers are confident that they will not be ingesting lead paint or at any other risk from elevated trains, and I sincerely hope that my colleagues in the Executive Branch and the MTA feel the same way.”

While Dinowitz added that he believes that the final legislation was still a step forward for the health and safety of New Yorkers, the stripping of the law leaves a large gap in the understanding of the extent of lead levels in communities across the city.

MTA Comments on the Presence of Lead Paint

In response to questions regarding the presence of lead in the paint that was chipping from the trestles of the elevated JMZ line, MTA spokesperson David Steckel sent Bushwick Daily the following statement:

“The current rehabilitation of the M line project is well underway. Structural work in Brooklyn is complete and overcoat painting is scheduled to begin in Summer 2022. The wellbeing of our customers, employees and communities we serve is always our main priority and appropriate safety protocols are in place across the transit system.”

When pressed in a phone call about the agency’s refusal to comment on the potential presence of lead in the material shedding from the elevated structures and its potential impact on public health, the MTA spokesman insisted that statement was all the MTA cared to comment on the matter. 

According to previous emails obtained by Bushwick Daily, an independent MTA study did, in fact, identify lead in the paint of the JMZ lines. However, the MTA concluded that the levels of lead were under the threshold that it considers requiring emergency action.

In a separate email sent in March 12, 2021, MTA liaison Andy Inglesby suggested that the structure would be given an overcoat. Inglesby’s statement reads:

“Regarding the M line project—the structural rehab of the columns is finishing up at the Knickerbocker Avenue station; we should be finished within 1-2 months. The overcoat painting project has been delayed due to this winter’s severe weather and staffing issues.  We are currently scheduled to begin work in Fall 2021—more information will be available later in the year when we have a more definitive schedule.”

Dr. Rosner said that, in the long run, paint must be removed completely, as peeling paint is inevitable. By the time it is discovered, it is already disintegrating and harming people.

“But in the short run, at least, we have to make sure that there’s no peeling paint on structures. That’s just bad public health,” said Dr. Rosner. “If the MTA says there’s no problem here, they just are either ignorant or they just try to ignore the problem.”

According to Celestina Leon, District Manager of Bushwick’s Brooklyn Community Board 4 (CB4), the Executive Board of CB4 asked her to send a letter to the MTA formally expressing concerns over lead levels on elevated structures and asking them to provide a written response. Leon said she will be sending the letter out later this week.

And while the MTA announced the M line is to be repaired this summer, there has been no mention of if the J and Z lines that run over Broadway – which is less commercially developed than Myrtle Avenue – will be repaired. Per former governor Cuomo’s alteration of the 2018 law, the J and Z lines would not need to be tested if they were not planned MTA capital projects. 

“It’s really a class issue and a social issue in general,” said Dr. Rosner. “So many of the victims of lead poisoning were poor people, and poor children, and we’ve been able to get away from paying attention to it because they lacked so much of the political power and political authority.”

Bushwick Prepares for Construction

Rehabilitation of the M line has started in the Queens section of the elevated track by Fresh Pond Road. As it progresses into Bushwick, residents should expect traffic delays and disruptions to street side parking.

“If we’re looking at other projects in comparison, I think that we’re going to see obvious impacts to parking, we’re going to see probably some staging materials that are going to affect pedestrians that are commuting, and, of course, drivers that are also having to keep an eye out for folks that are trying to cross,” said Leon. She said that Community Board 4 will be hosting representatives from the MTA to speak at a public hearing regarding information on the upcoming construction under the M line.

Councilmember Gutiérrez said that she hopes to see federal infrastructure funds secured by Senator Chuck Schumer allocated to the project, particularly for stations in working class communities where residents rely on public transportation.

“Communities along the JMZ lines, like Williamsburg and Bushwick, already have some of the highest rates of respiratory illnesses in the city – all levels of government need to do their part to mitigate environmental health hazards in these communities and across the city,” said Councilmember Gutiérrez.

The hearing will be scheduled by Community Board 4 for the community to ask questions to a representative from the MTA regarding the planned restoration of the line. Questions can be submitted to the community board’s email [email protected] or by phone at (718) 628-8400.

The community board hearing will be made available on YouTube for those who cannot attend.

Featured Image: Knickerbocker Avenue Station. Photo by Kyle Andrew Smith. 

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