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Why Does Lead Poisoning Still Afflict Tens of Thousands of Kids in NJ?

Childhood lead poisoning is entirely preventable, but longstanding scourge lingers in the Garden State

This is the first story in a two-part package investigating lead-poisoning and New Jersey’s children. You can read the second article on our website.

lead paint

Elevated levels of highly toxic lead have been found in more than 3,100 young children in New Jersey so far this year, according to preliminary data.

The number is on pace to rival last year’s total: 3,599 children under six years old with high lead levels. All told, about 225,000 young kids in New Jersey have been afflicted by lead since 2000.

“It’s amazing to me that no one’s doing anything about it in New Jersey,” said Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director at Isles Inc., a nonprofit community development and environmental organization based in Trenton.

If more than 3,000 kids “came down with a rare virus that was going to affect the rest of their life in New Jersey or in the nation, we would be talking about it,” Pivnick said. “We would be looking for some solution and we’re not and it’s wrong.”

Historically, most of the state’s lead-poisoned children are in poor, minority families living in old urban areas, including Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, and Trenton.

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A state spokeswoman called the reduction of lead poisoning in recent years a public-health success story. The number of children under 17 found to have high lead levels dropped from more than 27,000 in 2000 to fewer than 4,000 so far this year. But since 2004, the state has repeatedly raided revenues aimed at preventing lead poisoning to help balance state budgets.

Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said in an email that “the number of children with lead poisoning has declined dramatically over the past 20 years. At the same time, the number of children tested each year for lead poisoning has increased significantly.”

Despite that characterization, lead remains the top environmental threat to children’s health in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Human Services. Young children are the most vulnerable to lead, which can permanently damage the brain and lead to lifelong learning issues and behavioral problems.

Preventing exposure to lead is the most important step parents, doctors, and others can take to address lead poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Despite the rising number of lead-poisoned kids, governors and the state Legislature have diverted at least $53.7 million -- and possibly $100 million-plus -- from an anti-lead-poisoning fund to the general treasury since 2004, according to the Office of Legislative Services, which serves the Legislature.

New Jersey created its Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund nearly 12 years ago to help remove lead from homes or isolate lead contamination, pay for the emergency location of households with lead-poisoned children, provide extensive education and outreach, and pay for training on how to keep buildings lead-safe.

The fund was also designed to identify lead-safe housing through a Web-based Lead Safe Housing Registry, boost the detection of lead-based paint and dust hazards through free dust-wipe kits, and pay for X-ray analyzers for local health departments. But a map on a Lead Safe Housing Registry webpage that is supposed to show lead-safe housing can no longer be reached.

Pivnick, of Isles, called the massive diversion of lead fund dollars “shameful.”

“We have ways to make homes lead-safe,” she said. “We’re not doing it and we’re continuing to ruin children’s lives.”

In June, the state Senate approved Senate Bill S-1279 that would have added $10 million to the cash-strapped lead fund in fiscal 2015. But the fiscal year ended on June 30 without the funds being deposited.

Last month, the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee approved an amended version (A-2325) of the bill. The measure would provide $10 million for the lead fund in fiscal 2016, which began on July 1.

The next step is consideration by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, but a date has yet to be set, according to Eva Loayza, spokeswoman for the Assembly Democrats. If the Assembly approves the bill, the Senate would have to concur with the amendments and vote on the amended version.

Under a 2004 law, $7 million to $14 million a year in paint and surface coating sales tax proceeds is supposed to flow into the lead fund. That means $77 million to $154 million was slated for the fund from fiscal 2005 through fiscal 2015. Yet all but $23.3 million went into the lead fund and the rest went into New Jersey’s general fund, according to OLS.

Gov. Chris Christie’s last five state budgets, including his fiscal 2016 spending plan, provided not penny in sales tax revenues toward the fund.

Arnold Cohen, senior policy coordinator at the nonprofit Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said “it’s outrageous that this governor has taken dollars from … the fund for lead poisoning that should be addressing this issue.”

David A. Henry, health officer at Monmouth County Regional Health Commission No. 1, which covers 21 municipalities in Monmouth, said it’s encouraging that the number of lead-poisoned children has dropped, but he wants the $10 million lead fund bill to pass.

“It will give our most vulnerable residents a chance to be moved out of … lead-contaminated housing,” and housing could be remediated, said Henry, legislative chair of the New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials.

Brian T. Murray, spokesman for Christie, said in an email that “New Jersey is dramatically lowering incidents of lead poisoning and exposure. While the number of children tested annually has climbed considerably, there has been a remarkable drop in the number of children found to have lead poisoning. That’s the story.”

The dangers of lead

Lead, a naturally occurring heavy metal, has been widely used in paint and many other products over the centuries. It accumulates in bones and teeth, and it is especially harmful to young children, according to the World Health Organization. No lead level is known to be safe.

Children may place objects coated with or containing lead, such as tainted soil or dust and decaying paint chips, in their mouths or swallow them, according to the WHO.

Lead in paint dust and chips in older homes -- those generally built before 1978 -- is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. Even plumbing in newer homes that is legally deemed "lead-free" may also have some lead.

Products that may have lead include painted toys, furniture, toy jewelry and cosmetics. Some folk remedies with lead, such as "greta" and “azarcon,” are used to treat upset stomachs, according to the EPA.

The latest lead data

This year through Nov. 13, 3,110 children under six years old in New Jersey have had at least 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood for the first time in their lives, according to preliminary data. The total for all children under 17 is 3,426.

Some 3,599 young kids had elevated lead levels last year, down from 24,488 in 2000.

The CDC recommends “case management” and public-health efforts to curb children’s exposure to lead when concentrations hit 5 micrograms. That level is far higher than in most kids, the CDC says. From 2011 through last year, the average lead level in 1- to 5-year-old New Jersey children was less than 2 micrograms, according to the state health department.

Levels less than 5 micrograms have been associated with attention-related behavior issues, increased “problem behaviors,” lower IQ and academic achievement, and reduced cognition, according to the National Toxicology Program.

But unlike some other states, New Jersey has not adopted the CDC’s 5 microgram “reference level.”

The state health department’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention website states that the CDC “defines lead poisoning in children as a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter … or above.”

However, the CDC no longer uses its 10 microgram “level of concern.”

Henry, of the Monmouth Regional Health Commission, said health officials in New Jersey are still bound by the state’s rules. “We have no jurisdiction -- any of us in any local health departments or (the) state -- to do anything below the 10 level,” he said.

Leusner, of the state health department, said the agency is working on amendments to childhood lead poisoning rules. Reviewing CDC recommendations is part of the process, she said.

The former CDC Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention recommends monitoring in pediatric offices for lead levels of 5 and above. The committee recognized that the selection of any level as a “trigger for action or inaction at an individual or community level will be primarily dependent upon the availability of effective remediation approaches and financial means to accomplish them and, to some degree, related analytical considerations,” according to a CDC spokeswoman. The CDC concurred with the committee’s recommendation.

According to state data, the number of young children with 5 or more micrograms of lead plummeted from 2007 to 2008 -- from 18,690 to 10,987 -- and then to 7,805 in 2009.

Leusner listed multiple reasons why the numbers dropped substantially since 2007. They include a growing focus on prevention, reducing children’s exposure to lead, and efforts to eliminate potential lead hazards from housing.

A heightened awareness of lead poisoning’s impact on the developing brains of children, the 1978 ban on the use of lead-based paint in homes, the phase-out of leaded gasoline in the 1980s, and a decrease in lead-contaminated soil also helped, according to Leusner.

Federal rules also required workers to be trained in lead-safe work practices and certified. In addition, federal officials banned children's products with too much lead, Leusner said.

Pivnick, of Isles, laments what she sees as a failure to prevent lead poisoning and help lead-poisoned children in schools.

“We had an opportunity to make homes lead-safe and … the money was taken from the (lead fund) program,” she said, “and our educators don’t know who in their school even (has) elevated lead levels. There’s no effort to tailor programs for these children. There’s no research about how to best work with these children. It’s a crime that no one is paying attention to this.”

Lead “has an impact on how children learn and you don’t see it as much in the early years, but for vulnerable children, it’s likely to be a huge problem in their later years as they’re trying to learn and … succeed in the world,” she said.

“We wring our hands about the education disparities between some of our urban and suburban districts and we’re not even looking at this contributing factor,” she added.

Todd B. Bates, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service, is a freelance environmental, health and science writer, and an investigative reporter. He was a staff reporter for New Jersey newspapers for nearly 35 years. His most recent assignment was covering the environment and severe weather as a member of the Investigations Team at the Asbury Park Press.

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