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Christie Has Just Days to Make $10M Commitment to Fight Lead Poisoning in Kids

Lead abatement program has languished for years, while money has been consistently tapped for general budget

lead paint

A bill to revitalize New Jersey’s fund for fighting lead poisoning -- an entirely avoidable scourge that afflicts thousands of children -- is headed for Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.

The governor can conditionally veto the bill by Tuesday. He has until noon on January 19 to sign it. If he takes no action by then, that would be a pocket veto and the bill will die, according to Trish Graber, a spokeswoman for the Senate Democrats.

The state Senate voted 29-6 Thursday to approve legislation (S-1279) that would put $10 million in the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund -- launched in 2004 but heavily raided to help balance state budgets. The Assembly passed the bill 48-20-1 last month.

“This is great news,” said Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director at nonprofit Isles Inc., a community development and environmental group based in Trenton. “The governor should sign the bill. Important work will get done, saving many children and their families a lifetime of challenge.”

“And just as important, this minor investment will save New Jersey added costs of special education, the cost of the criminal justice system, disability, welfare down the road,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for New Jersey to do the right thing.”

Arnold Cohen, senior policy coordinator for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said “it’s great that there was bipartisan support and that Republicans voted for the bill because this is not in any way a partisan issue … We’ll be working hard to try to get the governor to sign the bill.”

Brian T. Murray, Christie’s spokesman, said in an email that “per our usual policy, we don’t remark on pending legislation until we receive a final bill and have had adequate time to review it.”

Christie’s fiscal 2016 spending plan and four previous budgets provided zero tax revenues from paint sales for the lead fund.

The Senate approved similar legislation in 2012, but the bill died in the Assembly.

Thursday’s Senate vote follows a two-part NJ Spotlight investigative package on the high levels of toxic lead detected in more than 3,000 young children in New Jersey last year alone.

In the past 15 years, elevated lead concentrations have been found -- for the first time in their lives -- in about 225,000 children who are five 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. Minority children who live in older housing in urban areas are typically at highest risk.

“Lead poisoning can be extremely detrimental to the health of a child, leading to learning and behavioral problems and to others that are far more severe,” said Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex), a primary sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “Yet, there are thousands of children, many living in urban areas, who are being exposed to this harmful substance in their own homes.”

“I have consistently advocated for increased funding to address this problem and I’m glad we finally were able to send this bill to the governor’s desk,” Rice said. “We have to protect our residents against lead hazards through prevention measures, and this funding is a step forward in that effort.”

The purpose of the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund is to pay for removing or controlling lead in homes, relocating households with lead-tainted children on an emergency basis, and supporting widespread education and outreach on lead poisoning.

The fund is also supposed to pay for training on lead-safe building maintenance practices, an online Lead Safe Housing Registry, free dust-wipe kits for detecting lead-based paint and dust, and X-ray analyzers at health departments.

But the NJ Spotlight package documented the $53.7 million to perhaps $100 million-plus in sales-tax revenues that have been diverted from the lead fund.

In 2004, then Gov. James E. McGreevey signed a law requiring the lead fund to get $7 million to $14 million annually in taxes from the sale of paint and surface coatings. In 11 fiscal years through mid-2015, at least $77 million and as much as $154 million was supposed to fill the fund. But it wound up with just $23.3 million, with the balance going to the state general fund, according to the state Office of Legislative Services.

The state has also failed to inspect one- and two-family rentals to ensure that they’re lead-safe – despite a 2008 law requiring inspections.

Cohen said “we’ll continue to be working on this critical issue, including to try to make sure that this state implements the law to inspect one- and two-family rental homes for lead.”

“There’s a lot of issues to be dealt with in terms of children’s education who may have been poisoned by lead,” he said. “This is the beginning of a long campaign on this critical issue.”

Along with lead-based paint and dust in homes and other buildings, sources of lead include soil, water, toys, jewelry, cosmetics, imported Mexican candy and home remedies.

A safe level of lead in children has yet to pinpointed and “the effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website. “The most important step parents, doctors and others can take is to prevent lead exposure before it occurs.”

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) a dentist and primary sponsor of the $10 million lead fund bill, said in a statement that “since often times there are no obvious symptoms of illness, lead poisoning in children can go undetected. That is particularly concerning given the damage it can cause to a child’s brain and nervous system.”

“We must act to protect against lead hazards, and that means providing adequate funding for programs that will decrease the risk of exposure to our residents,” he said.

David A. Henry, health officer at Monmouth Regional Health Commission No. 1, said the New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials supports the Senate-approved legislation.

“We’re encouraged by the vote and we’re just looking forward to the governor hopefully signing it,” said Henry, the association’s legislative chair.

Cohen, of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said “obviously, as long as children are affected by lead, I do think it’s incumbent upon all of us to be making sure as much is being done as possible to address the issue of lead poisoning.”

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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