NJ Spotlight

Add $10M To Budget To Fight Lead Poisoning In NJ's Kids, Advocates Urge

More children with high blood-lead levels have been found in some of state's older cities than in Flint, MI

NJ Spotlight — February 2, 2016

By Tom Johnson

When Gov. Chris Christie unveils his budget for the next fiscal year on February 15, it ought to include $10 million to fight lead poisoning in New Jersey, community groups urged yesterday.

High levels of lead were detected in more than 3,000 young children in the state last year, they noted. In 2014, 11 New Jersey cities were found to have a higher percentage of elevated blood-lead levels than the rates in Flint, MI, where lead in drinking water has become a national story. The other cities listed in the 2014 report were Passaic, New Brunswick, Plainfield, Irvington, East Orange, and Atlantic City.

"It's just as tragic and alarming thousands of children in New Jersey are exposed to lead poisoning,'' said Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director at nonprofit Isles, Inc., a community group based in Trenton, and one of the organizations asking Christie to put the money in the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund.

As in much of the rest of the nation, the primary source of lead poisoning is chipping and peeling lead paint applied many years ago in older housing that has not been well maintained. The state tries to reduce exposure by offering loans or grants to property owners from the fund, which has been depleted by diversion to the general budget.

"It is a solvable, fixable problem and we should do it,'' said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, referring to the risks posed by lead-based paint.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill (S-1279) that would have appropriated $10 million to address the problem, but it was among dozens of bills pocket vetoed by the governor following the end of the prior legislative session.

In the past 15 years, elevated lead concentrations have been found — for the first time in their lives — in about 225,000 children age 5 and under. Young children face the greatest threat from lead poisoning, which can cause permanent brain damage and a lifetime of learning problems and behavioral issues.

While some gains have been achieved in reducing lead poisoning over the past two decades, the problem still disproportionately affects poor, minority children in the nation's older cities, according to Pivnick.

In New Jersey, that is the case with some of the oldest and largest cities, including Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth, among those cited for having more children with elevated blood lead levels than Flint. In Trenton, for instance, of 3,421 children tested, 214 had high levels of blood in their systems. By comparison, Flint, in 2015, tested 3,339 children, with 112 showing elevated levels.

"In 2016, no child should suffer from lead poisoning, it's a completely preventable issue,'' Berger said. "Our budget should reflect that.''

The advocates noted more than $50 million targeted for the lead-control fund, which is supported by a tax on paint sales, has been diverted to the general budget. "This fund has been raided for over a decade to balance the budget, which has had devastating consequences,'' said Ann Vardeman, associate director of organizing and advocacy for New Jersey Citizen Action.

Also yesterday, Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Middlesex) announced she would introduce a bill Thursday to require inspections at many one and two-family rentals to make sure they are lead-safe. Such inspections were required by a 2008 law but never enforced by the Department of Community Affairs, according to Turner.

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