Democratic lawmakers are poised today to advance proposals to ramp up New Jersey’s efforts to protect children from lead poisoning. These measure, advocates argue, are long overdue given the thousands of youngsters who test positive for the toxic heavy metal each year. Their concern is further fueled by worries about the state’s aging water infrastructure, sparked largely by the crisis in Flint, MI.
But Gov. Chris Christie is pushing back, defending his veto of a previous effort to increase funding for lead abatement on financial terms and stressing that the state already spends tens of millions each year to help keep children from getting sick. In a press conference last week, Christie said the issue has been “over dramatized” and blamed Democratic-led requests for extra funding for driving the state’s budget problems.
In January Christie refused to sign off on $10 million in supplemental funding for the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund, which advocates say he hasn’t refueled in six years. Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) quickly reintroduced the measure, which helps property owners fund remediation, and versions of it are up for a vote today in a trio of legislative committees. Another bill, by Rice and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), would strengthen testing and outreach requirements around lead poisoning.
“It’s $10 million for now, but we need a lot more,” Rice said in a video statement, urging the Republican governor to reconsider his previous position. “I’d like to think because he was out running for president, out of state, running around the country, that he didn’t read the bill itself or have a conversation about the importance of protecting these kids from brain damage and death and the problems it creates. Something that is irreparable once it occurs.”
The governor’s office responded quickly to a request late Friday for details, underscoring how the state already spends more than $22 million annually on programs designed in part to identify lead contamination, encourage its removal, and flag and monitor children who are likely exposed.
Spokesman Brian Murray stressed that the governor’s dedication to this issue should not be measured by any one line item, noting that lead screening is on the rise and the number of lead-poisoning cases dropped drastically over the years.
“First of all this has been an over-dramatized issue,” Christie told reporters. While not “philosophically opposed” to increasing allocations to the Lead Hazard fund, he said the money must be included in the regular budget process, not after the fact. “You cannot fund everything. So make some choices and I will certainly be willing to consider that along with everything else that comes about,” he said to the Democratic-led legislature.
Since 2000, state records show some 225,000 children have been afflicted by lead poisoning, including 3,426 who tested positive last year. This is down significantly from the 27,000 flagged for high lead levels in 2000. New Jersey is one of 17 states that mandates youngsters be screened. When dangerous levels of lead were detected in the public water system in the aging manufacturing town of Flint, the story triggered new attention to the issue.Environmental health experts note the issue impacts poor children in greater numbers, since they tend to live in older housing stock that is more likely to have lead paint or pipes and be in proximity to contaminated industrial sites. Children can be poisoned after ingesting lead-tainted particles from things like older house paint, plumbing fixtures, or some toys. Lead poisoning can cause serious, lifelong mental and physical problems and even death.
In New Jersey, advocates for low-income communities — and some lawmakers who represent them — said the state should do more to protect these children. The note how the Lead Hazard fund was designed with a dedicated revenue source, a portion of the sales tax from certain paint items. (Old paint is often the primary source of lead poisoning.) But Christie has diverted this money to pay for other programs, they explain, as he did with funds created to pay for affordable housing and clean-energy programs.
“This is dedicated funding that consumers of paint have paid for and he is syphoning it for other purposes,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “It’s part of a much larger pattern and in the case of the Lead Hazard fund it’s children who are suffering. Forever. For their whole lives.”
“They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. And in this case Peter is a two year old with lead poisoning,” she added.
Rice’s bill to supplement the fund is scheduled for a hearing Monday in the Senate Community and Urban Affairs committee. An assembly committee will also review its version, sponsored by two lawmakers from Newark, Grace Spencer and Elaina Pintor Marin (both D-Essex), Trenton representative Elizabeth Maher Muoio (D-Mercer) and Daniel Benson (D-Mercer) from next-door Hamilton. The Senate Health Committee will examine the measure by Rice and Vitale to align New Jersey’s testing guidelines with the blood-lead level established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is half the state’s current threshold of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
Federal lawmakers are also looking to address lead poisoning. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, is scheduled to hold a press conference Monday to announce his own federal bill to make the CDC blood-lead level the national standard. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), recently questioned the state’s efforts in a letter to the Health Department and at recent hearing in Trenton.
Christie’s staff bristled at the suggestion that it has ignored the issue. Overall, Murray said, nearly $30 million has been invested in various lead eradication and prevention programs since 2011. This does not include more than $4 million in federal funds the state used to help homeowners and landlords remove lead and get blood tests in communities hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. The budget proposed for fiscal year 2017, which starts in July, includes almost $3.8 million in other lead-poison prevention funding, Murray said.
Murray said these totals do not include the annual allocation of $7 million that the Department of Community Affairs spends on inspecting multi-family dwellings for a variety of code violations, including lead risks. When the heavy metal is found, property owners are required to remove the toxin within a specified amount of time. The DCA maintains extensive online lists, updated late last year, of contractors who are state-certified to test and remove lead from buildings of all kinds.
In addition, Murray said, the Health Department commits nearly $15 million annually on lead screening and abatement. This includes $11 million for the child welfare division of its sister agency, the Department of Human Services, to help keep foster homes lead safe and $2 million to help local and county health offices in communities with high lead levels.