A Community Foundation Takes Up the Fight Against Lead Poisoning



While lead paint poisoning in children is a huge problem, it’s not an issue that many foundations focus on. But the Central New York Community Foundation (CNYCF) is making this problem a priority.

Lead paint poisoning is a bigger deal in the city of Syracuse than many other places around the country. Data shows that 600 or more children in Syracuse were poisoned by lead paint last year, and that the city’s poorest families are affected by lead the most. The Onondaga County Health Department reported that 11 percent of children tested here last year had elevated lead levels in their blood, indicating that this really isn’t a problem that died out in the 1980s.

Elevated lead levels in a children’s blood has been linked to developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems—including crime and violence. This is because lead is a toxin that affects the nervous system and many bodily organs. Children are commonly exposed to lead by eating paint chips and inhaling dust particles in the air. Lead paint is most common in older homes, and over 90 percent of Syracuse’s housing units were built before the government banned lead paint in 1978.

Of course, lead in water supplies is also an issue—one that’s been in the news often lately since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. That crisis generated a major response from local foundations; still, as we said, lead poisoning is not a common focus of day-to-day grantmaking by foundations.

In October, CNYCF committed $2 million over the next four years to help end child lead poisoning. Since lead poisoning-focused grants are few and far between, we were interested to see this community funder’s giving strategy.

The first round of LeadSafeCNY initiative grants totaled $439,750, and went toward everything from new housing construction to existing home renovations and community outreach. The new grants are between $1,000 and $150,000 each for local groups like Home HeadQuarters, Housing Visions Unlimited, and the Greater Syracuse Land Bank.

To start, the community funder is focusing its efforts on two local census tracts that have been linked to the highest blood levels in Syracuse children: Tract 23, north of Interstate 690 between Pearl and Lodi streets, and Tract 54 in the Brighton neighborhood on Syracuse’s Southside. These are places where a disproportionate number of families live in poverty and where many children test positive for high blood lead levels.

CNYCF’s movement on this issue has been data-driven from the beginning, allowing numbers to tell a startling story to boost community support.

“We are grateful to the health department for making this dataset available to us, because it allows those organizing around this issue to focus their efforts where it is needed the most,” said Frank Ridzi, vice president, community investment at the Community Foundation. “By annually analyzing this information, we’ll be able to measure our effectiveness over time.”

In addition to this particular show of support by the largest charitable foundation in the region, CNYCF provides grants in the areas of arts and culture, civic affairs, education, health, human services, and the environment. It has given over $190 million for community projects since its inception in 1927 and has assets exceeding $272 million