These Maps Reveal the Worst Neighborhoods for Lead Poisoning in NYC, Boston, and Chicago

Our interactive maps display the childhood lead levels of neighborhoods in three major U.S. cities.
July 23, 2019, 3:59pm
Image: Lia Kantrowitz

In the U.S., lead seeps through cities like a secret poison. It’s in peeling old paint falling from window panes or leached from old pipes traversing under even older homes. Public outcry crops up one town at a time: we hear of children’s brains permanently altered and women unable to get pregnant. The toxic heavy metal remains a pernicious threat protected by the government’s inability to regulate landlords and contractors. Entire municipalities remain complicit.

These interactive maps only tell the stories of three such cities, but in doing so, they reveal thousands of families affected by lead poisoning. The CDC estimates that nationwide, half a million children have lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter, the threshold that most states consider unsafe—though no amount of lead in the blood is actually safe. Here, with data from each public health department, we’ve mapped out income and how populations of children have been affected by lead in 2017, by neighborhood.

In New York, which had the lowest rate of lead exposure of the three cities, lead problems are still reflective of low-income households and the real estate stronghold, where landlords still hold the power. One hotspot was in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Greenpoint and South Williamsburg, where recent rates were almost on par with Flint, Michigan, during the peak of its water contamination crisis, partly due to access to older housing, poverty, and healthcare.

In Chicago, where wealth and racial disparity cuts through society, the quickly gentrifying neighborhoods are rife with an underlying lead problem that can’t always be renovated into submission. Take Fuller Park, a neighborhood with a high turnover rate and a large immigrant population: its lead level is noticeably higher than other areas that haven’t seen as much change.

And in Boston, where a public health mission is touted, one of the country’s strongest anti-lead programs tries to remain consistent in battling some of the oldest housing stock in the United States. But the legislation has not been able to push fast or far enough, and landlords are still finding loopholes to the law.

These maps might not even tell the whole picture: while testing children for lead levels is mandatory in New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois, many still fall through the cracks. Even then, it’s clear that poverty remains a key predictor for lead exposure, and that each city, even if it is doing a lot, has not done quite enough.

Data research by Nick Perez