The city’s Housing Authority and the Department of Investigation are looking into how NYCHA workers checking for lead ended up using expired dust wipes to certify apartments are “clean,” THE CITY has learned.
The expired materials revelation raises questions about the credibility of the so-called clearance examinations NYCHA uses to officially declare an apartment lead-free.
Workers use the wipes after an apartment is cleaned of lead. The wipes, which gather dust samples, are sent to a lab for testing. But expired wipes are “less effective” at detecting lead, their manufacturer said.
Expired wipes were employed by some workers, THE CITY revealed last week as NYCHA blew it May 31 deadline to remove lead apartments where young children live.
Sources have since told THE CITY that workers at several developments were given wipes that expired in 2014 and 2016.
The sources provided photos of plastic tubes labeled with a NYCHA apartment number with what they said were expired wipes stuffed inside. The ripped-open wipes packages show expiration dates of 2016.
Asked about this, Diane Struzzi, a city Department of Investigation spokesperson responded, “DOI is aware of this situation and is looking into it.” She declined to elaborate.
In response to questions from THE CITY, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo acknowledged that expired wipes had been distributed during the lead paint clearance examinations but insisted they’d been destroyed before use.
Both private vendors and NYCHA staff have been involved in the clean-ups. Mustaciuolo said NYCHA “had no reason to believe expired dust wipes were used by trained dust wipe technicians to collect samples,” but declined to say whether NYCHA staff used them.
“We are reviewing the matter with the staff and supervisors who conducted the testing,” he said. “NYCHA has been transparent about its challenges with compliance and has drafted a corrective action plan which now awaits approval from our federal partners.”
Mustaciuolo declined to answer how many boxes of expired wipes were distributed, or why NYCHA would have expired wipes on hand.
Lead Lawsuits Abound
The use of expired wipes follows NYCHA management admitting that they falsely claimed to have performed required lead paint inspections for years, and used untrained workers to perform the delicate job of lead paint cleanup.
NYCHA now faces multiple lawsuits from tenants whose children tested positive for dangerous blood-lead levels. Between 2012 and 2017, more than 1,100 children living in NYCHA registered levels labeled “of concern” by federal health authorities.
Corey Stern, an attorney who’s suing NYCHA on behalf of several tenants with lead-poisoned kids, said the use of expired wipes calls into doubt NYCHA’s claims that an apartment is “clean” of lead.
“The fact that even now, after thousands of hours of public hearings, firings and resignations of key personnel, including the former chairperson, and public admissions that it failed our community, NYCHA cannot even get the simplest part right — dust wipes that are expired,” Stern said.
NYCHA’s push to clean up lead from its aging apartments follows a civil complaint filed last year by the Manhattan U.S Attorney detailing the authority’s misdeeds on lead and other awful apartment conditions, such as mold infestation and broken elevators. In a deal with prosecutors, NYCHA agreed to the appointment of a federal monitor.
Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to inspect and, if necessary, clean up 135,000 public housing apartments for lead paint by the end of 2020, before he finished his time at City Hall. That’s three-quarters of the authority’s portfolio of 175,000 apartments.
NYCHA hired several vendors to assist at an estimated cost of $88 million, but the effort wasn’t scheduled to kick off until April. By the end of that month only five apartments had been tested. And only 1.3% of the apartments had been checked off as passing clearance exams by May 17.
Already Behind on Inspections
In a May 30 letter to NYCHA, the federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, estimated that agency would have to inspect 6,750 units per month to reach the mayor’s goal.
The agency is currently testing about 2,500 apartments month. At that rate, Schwartz predicted, NYCHA couldn’t finish the job until 2024.
Interim NYCHA Chairperson Kathryn Garcia countered that the agency had just gotten started and would make the deadline.
Under the time pressure, NYCHA has begun providing training to staff in the basics of lead paint cleanups, and began ordering maintenance workers to help out with the clearance exams.
Over Memorial Day weekend, workers were ordered to report to several housing developments — including Marble Hill in The Bronx, Wise Towers in Manhattan and Marlboro Houses in Brooklyn, sources familiar with the cleanup told THE CITY.
That’s where the expired wipes showed up, the sources said.
Inspectors with the city Housing Preservation and Development department also helped out performing dust wipes, including at Marble Hill and Marlboro. But HPD officials said their workers never used expired wipes.
At Marble Hill, tenant Devonne Wiles, 32, said workers came last week and tested her apartment for lead using what she described as a “machine on the wall.” The private vendors hired by NYCHA are using an X-ray-like device called XRF that registers the presence of lead.
The wipes used in the clearance exams were manufactured by a South Carolina company called Environmental Express. David Smith, technical director at the firm, said an expired wipe would be “less effective” in providing clear lead test results.
“It is in a package that has an expiration date. The wipe does not expire. The water does not expire. The packaging theoretically could become compromised, allowing the water to seep out,” he said. “There is a method that requires proper amount of moisture on the wipe to make things happen.”
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