Do 11 NJ towns really have a worse lead poisoning problem than Flint?
Is it true that 11 towns in New Jersey have a worse problem with lead poisoning than Flint, Mich., where an ongoing health crisis has spurred federal and local investigations?
It depends on how you look at the numbers. And there are a lot of numbers involved.
Advocacy group Isles and several lawmakers last week released a list of 11 municipalities where they say more children, proportionately, have been shown to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood than seen in Flint.
The towns in question: Atlantic City, East Orange, Elizabeth, Irvington, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield, New Brunswick, Passaic and Trenton. Overall, Salem and Cumberland Counties also showed higher proportionate amounts of children with high lead levels.
But the cause is entirely different than in Michigan — Flint's water supply is contaminated. In New Jersey, the problem stems from lead paint in homes the advocates say the state isn't doing enough to address.
Lead-based paints were banned in 1978, but they remain in several homes built before then.
Tammori Petty, director of communications for the state Department of Community Affairs, in a message to New Jersey 101.5 said those numbers were missing a context she says shows a "large distinction" between what's happening in New Jersey and in Flint.
"This data can’t be verified, because the advocates’ haven’t provided enough information to know if their data is fair or accurate comparison whatsoever, or even comparing the same periods of time," Petty wrote.
Isles used a standard of 5 micrograms per deciliter as an indicator lead levels are too high — the same standard the Centers for Disease control uses. In 2015, for the first time, more than 3,000 New Jersey children were newly identified with elevated levels, by that standard.
But New Jersey's own standard is more lenient — it considers a case of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher to demonstrate elevated lead levels. And of course, by the more lenient standard, the figure is significantly lower.
"For comparison, New Jersey’s official stats show 885 cases of new or existing elevated blood lead levels in the entire state for 2015. ... (based on NJ’s standard of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher)," Petty wrote. "Comparisons to the public health crisis going on in Flint is totally off base when you put these figures into perspective."
Isles compared Flint's 2015 figures to New Jersey's 2014 figures (the latest for which town-by-town data was available). But Petty noted that by some estimates, Flint could see 8,000 reported cases of elevated lead levels in 2016 for children under 6 years of age — nearly all in that community. The stats Isles is using so far show just 112 affected children in Flint for 2015.
Nothing in the New Jersey statistics comes close to the 2016 projections, proportionately.
"What we do know is that over the past 20 years in New Jersey, lead testing has increased dramatically and incidents of lead poisoning in children have fallen dramatically," Petty said.
The most recent shows more than 200,000 children being tested for lead — up from just about 10,000 in 1998, Petty said. New Jersey is one of 17 states requiring universal screening for all children ages 1 and 2.
"That’s why, according to the latest data, 97 percent of New Jersey’s children under 6 years of age have had at least one blood lead test in their lifetime," Petty wrote.
She said that "even as the number of screenings have gone up dramatically, incidents of elevated blood levels in New Jersey have fallen dramatically. This is due to public education and prevention efforts over the long term – unleaded gasoline, banning lead paint in homes, and reductions in lead contaminated soil, for example."
Two weeks ago, Gov. Chris Christie pocket vetoed a bill that would have put $10 million in the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund. It was passed in the Senate 24-9 and in the Assembly 48-20-1 last month.
The fund was created more than a decade ago, but the state has consistently diverted funds — collected based on a fee on paint sales — to other needs, Isles and supporting lawmakers say. It pays for the removal of lead from older homes, emergency relocations, and home inspections. Isles was also calling for legislation to shift those inspections to local governments, saying the state isn't putting enough resources into them.
“Since the implementation of the LHCAF, the state has steered more than $50 million into its general treasury instead of the LHCAF as required,” Isles wrote in an announcement of its statistics.
Petty said New Jersey spends nearly $7 million per year on "inspections that cover lead hazards" — such as required under hotel and multiple-dwellings rules. She said those inspections cover about 200,000 homes per year. Another $5.4 in federal grant money was used for lead screening in Sandy-affected areas, she said.
“In 2016, no child should suffer from lead poisoning. It’s a completely preventable issue,” Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network, said in the Isles announcement. “Our budget should reflect that. We hope the governor will abide by the law and do right by our children by putting the money where it belongs. Our children should not be lead detectors.”