Lead and Other Environmental Risk Factors in Buffalo

This project's goal is to combine current environmental risks within the City of Buffalo with key demographic characteristics to determine whether or not Buffalo could be prone to a catastrophic health crisis, similar to the one currently taking place in Flint. Environmental phenomena are used to determine the areas that are most at risk of lead poisoning or other environmental risks. Meanwhile, demographics such as poverty and unemployment are being used to determine the Census Tracts with the least defense against a crisis.

Erie County features almost eight times as many Brownfields as the state average, and according to data presented by the Centers for Disease Control, 14 percent of children in Erie County have tested positive for lead poisoning (Herbeck and Pignataro, Ciotta 2016). A particular problem related to lead risk involves the large percentage of homes built before 1980, when lead paint was banned (Ciotta 2016). Numerous health agencies have claimed that this is the most prominent environmental hazard in Buffalo today (Ciotta 2016).

For this project, I am using a wide range of datasets. These include parcel data provided by Dr. Stephens relating to the year homes were built in Buffalo, as well as TIGER Files for Buffalo Census Tracts, and American Community Survey data in order to measure poverty, unemployment, and race demographics in relation to the environmental risks.

Next, I received a file from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation featuring the location of registry sites within New York State. The registry sites are defined as areas where hazardous waste was disposed of at one point or another, and are grouped into five classes ("Hazardous" 2016). Class 1 sites are locations that are or could cause extreme conditions in an area and require "immediate action", Class 2 sites are considered a large threat to the public, Class 3 sites are not currently considered a large threat to the public health, Class 4 sites are closed but do require management by environmental groups, while Class 5 sites do not require such action ("Hazardous" 2016). The sites in Buffalo are in Classes 2, 3, and 4. I edited this dataset down accordingly to focus on Buffalo.

I also created a few point datasets for use in this project. One dataset is based on an article I read from TWC News entitled "High Residential Lead Levels Not Caused by Former Smelting Plant," which revealed that the EPA was testing three former plants in the City of Buffalo in 2015 to determine their environmental effects on their surrounding areas. The other dataset is based on a special report from USA Today in 2012 entitled "Ghost Factories," where the newspaper investigated former factory sites throughout the nation that provided an environmental risk to their surrounding communities.

Map of Registry Points, USA Today Ghost Factory Sites, and EPA Test Sites in Buffalo

This Leaflet map shows the key point data being used for the project. The orange points are the DEC registry sites, while the blue points are the sites highlighted in the USA Today special report, and the purple points are the EPA Test sites. While we do not have demographic data mapped out on this map, we can get an idea of the distribution of these hazardous environmental sites. Most of the registry sites are located in South Buffalo, with many of the other locations in the East Side. Meanwhile, the East Side is also home to the majority of the "Ghost Factory" sites, including the three locations the EPA tested in 2015 for lead effects. With the primary exception of a small area near the I-190/Rt. 198 junction near the Niagara River, there are very few registry sites and ghost factories in North Buffalo and the area west of Main Street in general. As a result, South Buffalo and the East Side, as well as the triangle of registry sites in the West Side, will be the main regions we will focus on for this project.

Percentage of Population 5 Years and Younger in Relation to DEC Registry Sites in Buffalo, 2014

This map was used to map the percentage of population five years and younger in each Buffalo Census Tract. A key topic related to the effects of lead relates to the Blood Lead Levels of Children, specifically based on this age range. Looking at this map, the lowest concentration of the population aged five and younger is in the regions between Delaware Avenue and Main Street, as well as Downtown. These areas are notably lacking the presence of registry sites. A cluster of large concentrations are located in West Buffalo and the Blackrock area, where a trio of registry sites are located. This makes the area surrounding these registry sites a particular cause of concern.

Percentage of Buffalo Residents in Poverty in Relation to DEC Registry Class Sites, 2014

This CartoDB map is used to map the poverty percentages in each Buffalo Census Tract. The pattern appears to be a bit more randomized than with the age range data, but there are some commonalities. The main commonality relates to West Buffalo, where there are two Census Tracts with a high poverty percentage situated near the trio of registry sites. One key area of note relates to South Buffalo, where over half of the registry sites are located. While none of the Census Tracts here are in the highest classification, many of the sites are located within a Census Tract with at least a 30.2 percent poverty rate.

Proportion of Homes Built During Lead Paint Era (Before 1980) and Total Population in Buffalo, NY

This map is being used to mark the relationship between pre-1980 housing and the overall population of each Buffalo Census Tract. This map is important because the patterns on this map are different than on the prior demographic maps. For one, many of the highest proportions of lead housing are in the East Side, and the proportions of lead housing on the West Side are relatively low. However, the tracts that represent the highest proportion of parcels to population are in the northeast and southeast corners of the city. Furthermore, only one of the ghost factories is located within a Census Tract representing the highest class of data. This means that the distribution of ghost factories do not match with the highest proportions of lead-painted homes.


This project only provides a starting point to the analysis of environmental risk factors in Buffalo. However, a few key observations can be noted. When it comes to defending citizens of Buffalo from the crisis, nearly every area of the city has some form of defense needed. South Buffalo requires attention to its registry sites, the West Side has a particularly hazardous region near the Niagara River, the eastern corners of the city in particular are the primary areas for lead-painted housing, and the East Side is the primary center for the ghost factory sites. Demographic analysis reveals that some characteristics, such as the population of children five and younger near the registry sites in West Buffalo, can intensify the problem in several areas of the city, while other instances such as the low poverty rate in the corners of the city where high proportions of pre-1980 housing are found demonstrate a lack of correlation. These instances demonstrate the importance of finding common characteristics of risk, as they will make it easier to demonstrate where to allocate resources to defend Buffalo from a catastrophic health crisis.

Data Sources

  • Link to the American Community Survey Table for 5-Year Demographic and Housing Estimates for 2014
  • Link to the 2010 TIGER Files
  • Link to DEC Information about Remediation Sites
  • The parcel dataset used to determine pre-1980 built housing was provided by Dr. Stephens.

    Links that Inspired Point Datasets

  • Link to "High Residential Lead Levels Not Caused by Former Smelting Plant" by Sarah Blazonis (WKBW 7)
  • - This article inspired the EPA Test Sites Dataset.

  • Link to the USA Today Article on Ghost Factories (2012)
  • - This article inspired the Ghost Factories dataset.

    Links for Background Information

  • Link to "City Doesn't Tell Neighbors About Lead Dangers" (WKBW 7)
  • Link to "Toxic Legacy's Time Bomb" by Dan Herbeck and T.J. Pignataro (Buffalo News)
  • Link to "Erie County Among Highest in State for Lead Poisoning" by Rose Ciotta (WIVB 4)
  • Link to the DEC's guide to Hazardous Waste Site Classification
  • Other Useful Links

  • GIS Stack Exchange Forum about adding layers to a Leaflet Map
  • Link to "Leaflet: Make A Web Map!" by Andy Woodruff and Ryan Mullins
  • - This site helped me with adding the Buffalo polygon without overlapping the points on the Leaflet map.