NJ may spend another $10M to combat lead poisoning — but will that be enough?
TRENTON — State lawmakers are pledging to put $10 million more toward lead-poisoning response efforts in the next state budget. But they also might change state law in a way that could cause a five-fold increase in demand on the overwhelmed program.
A sudden avalanche of lead-related legislation is percolating in Trenton after stories of lead-tainted water supply problems in Flint, Michigan, and schools in Camden and Newark.
One of the proposed laws would lower the threshold at which lead levels in a child’s blood requires health officials to investigate. Currently in New Jersey, that level is at 10 micrograms per deciliter.
These are children that are born healthy. Healthy. And they’re being poisoned. And there’s no way to accept or allow this to continue, not in a state as wealthy as New Jersey.
New Jersey is one of the few states that receives lead funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that hasn’t lowered the "actionable" lead levels in blood to 5 micrograms per deciliter, said Elyse Pivnick, director of environmental health for Isles Inc.
Despite state efforts, thousands of children a year are impacted by lead, which hurts a child’s ability to learn and pay attention and can cause physical disabilities or, in extreme cases, death.
In New Jersey in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available, 840 children under age 17 were found to have lead levels in their blood above 10 micrograms per deciliter, including 788 under age 6. Almost 5,200 more had levels between 5 and 9 micrograms, including almost 4,800 under age 6.
“You’ve got a much bigger caseload,” said Pivnick, adding that it will require more resources for public health departments. “It’s a big problem.”
David Henry of the New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials said environmental lead investigations can cost $700 to $900 per person. That amounts to nearly half of the $10 million lawmakers are pledging to add to lead-prevention efforts, and that wouldn’t remediate any problems detected.
“It will double our caseload, actually, and we’re hoping there would be sufficient funding as part of the $10 million budget to help along for lead meters and for additional personnel to be out in the community,” Henry said.
The CDC has recommended the lower trigger since 2012, and the state Department of Health is currently considering the recommendation, separate from the lawmakers’ proposal.
“The department is working on amendments to childhood lead poisoning rules, and reviewing CDC recommendations is part of that process,” said spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
Remediation efforts can be relatively easy, if the lead is in an imported product such as candy, cosmetics, spices or toys. But the leading cause in New Jersey is lead paint, which was legal before 1978, in older homes.
“Those remediation programs, we know that that costs about $5,000 to remediate, between $5,000 and $10,000 once,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. "Once we solve that problem, that home is lead-free forever.”
New Jersey is proposing to spend $2.7 million in state and federal funds on lead-related programs in the Department of Health. That department also directs $11 million a year to the Department of Children & Families to support home visitation programs, in which nurses and others visit at-risk families to provide information and referrals on child health and safety issues, including lead poisoning.
Through the Department of Community Affairs, the state spends about $7 million a year inspecting multi-family homes for lead-based paint hazards. It also allocated $5.4 million in federal funds to screen 14,000 children, pregnant women and recovery workers for lead poisoning in Sandy-affected areas.
“The fact is that the trend in the number of children with elevated lead levels has fallen significantly while the trend for the number of children tested for lead has increased significantly,” said Tammori Petty, a DCA spokeswoman. “In New Jersey, childhood lead poisoning is a public health success story.”
At a Statehouse news conference Tuesday, Trenton grandmother Deborah Bradley urged people to get their homes tested for lead, particularly if they rent. Her grandson, Rushaine, suffers from seizures and learning problems due to lead poisoning, she said.
“When we rent these apartments, make sure you all have these apartments fully inspected, because the landlords really don’t care about us,” Bradley said, wiping away tears.
Lawmakers said they would allocate $10 million in the upcoming budget to a lead-hazard fund from which funding has been repeatedly raided by Gov. Chris Christie to help balance state budgets. Since the fund’s creation in 2004, more than $50 million has been shifted into the general budget.
“These are children that are born healthy. Healthy. And they’re being poisoned. And there’s no way to accept or allow this to continue, not in a state as wealthy as New Jersey,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
“We have a moral obligation as well as a fiscal obligation to get the lead out. Get the lead out of these homes, and get the lead out of our schools,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, said he has been talking with lawmakers about a new funding source that would pay for replacements of aging infrastructure such as water pipes made of lead, which in some places is more than a century old.
“Potentially it could be even a surcharge on water or something that could be reinvested back into that infrastructure,” Prieto said. “But we do have to look at that because New Jersey does have very older housing stock, and it is a problem.”
Preliminary data from the state Department of Health indicate that 898 children under age 6 had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter in 2015, the first increase in five years but the fourth lowest level in 18 years of record-keeping.
Among children up to age 17, 989 had elevated blood levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter in 2015, out of 206,221 tested.
The Department of Community Affairs said the preliminary Health Department data shows 97 percent of children screened last year didn’t have elevated blood levels.
A full report for 2015 hasn’t yet been published.
Michael Symons has covered the Statehouse since 2000. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or @MichaelSymons_ on Twitter.