The Trentonian

Muoio, Turner Look To Require Schools To Test Water Following Trenton Lead Results

The Trentonian — October 19, 2016

By David Foster, The Trentonian

TRENTON >> Last week, city public schools revealed one in five water sources in the district's 22 schools and four administrative buildings were identified to test above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acceptable lead level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

Outside Dunn Middle School in Trenton on Wednesday afternoon, a site that had four sinks test above the acceptable levels, Assemblywoman Liz Muoio and State Sen. Shirley Turner (both D-Mercer/Hunterdon) highlighted their identical bills that would mandate testing every five years in schools and for the results to be posted publicly, and call for remediation of the lead in drinking water if high levels are found. The press conference was also attended by a handful of environmental groups and local leaders.

"Unfortunately, the results from last week — while very disturbing —are not surprising," Muoio said, noting the aging infrastructure throughout the state. "The reason we are concerned is because our children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning. There's no safe level of lead in the blood."

While the assemblywoman was glad that the district completed tested, she was shocked it was not a requirement in the state to test public or private schools for lead.

"Our schools deserve better, our children certainly deserve better," Muoio said.

In addition to the lead in water, children can be exposed to toxic paint from Trenton's aging housing stock. Lead was in paint before it was banned in 1978, and is found to be the cause of 80 percent of lead poisonings.

Turner called it a "double whammy."

"We wonder why we have so many children in the city of Trenton that are classified as special needs," Turner said. "Maybe these children are getting a double dose of lead poisoning, in school and then back home." Lead exposure poses serious health risks to children under the age of 6. Learning disabilities, lower IQ scores, behavioral problems, kidney and brain damage, and reduced attention span are all contributed to higher lead levels.

Though it may be shocking to some, children under 6 from Trenton and 12 other municipal agencies in the state had higher blood lead levels than children in Flint, Mich., the epicenter of toxic water, according to test results from 2014 and 2015.

"What we're seeing right now is that the disaster in Flint has shined a spotlight on this issue across the country," Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said at the press conference. "It's a reminder that this issue has been plaguing our children for decades here in the state."

The district began testing its water in June following Gov. Chris Christie's mandate a month prior to require all districts to test for lead in the upcoming school year. Districts are required by law to provide safe drinking water, but many schools do not regularly test for lead.

Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director of Isles, did not fault Trenton for waiting so long to test, instead calling it a "huge error of omission" nationwide.

"Districts can typically use the water quality report that comes from the water treatment plant," Pivnick said. "Really, nobody was asking what happened to the water on the way to the school or inside the school."

Citing statistics, Ann Vardeman, program director at New Jersey Citizen Action, said a lead-poisoned child is seven times more likely to drop out of school.

"A lead-poisoned child is six times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system," Vardeman said. "We should be deeply ashamed that we are allowing our children to be exposed to a toxin in our schools that will make them more likely to drop out of school. We are allowing our children to be poisoned in our schools and in their homes. This isn't right."

Jerell Blakely, organizer for the Healthy Schools Now campaign, said it was an "obligation" to ensure that building that students walk into every day are "healthy and safe."

"Are we going to look in the eyes of a student, a young child, and say that to not poison, it will cost too much money?" Blakely questioned. "The fact of the matter is it is an investment in our future." All speakers in attendance at Wednesday's event agreed prevention is key.

"We will be working on the local level to make sure that we pass an ordinance to make sure that every home that will be rented or newly occupied has to be checked for lead before it is reoccupied by a new citizen," Trenton Councilman Duncan Harrison said.

To put a Band-Aid on its lead issues, the district took faucets off line, replaced plumbing components or put up signs stating "DO NOT DRINK— SAFE FOR HANDWASHING ONLY."

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