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How Effective Are the State’s Efforts to Protect Our Kids from Lead?

Screening programs are in place, but follow-up is sloppy; meanwhile. tens of millions may have been diverted from funds meant for lead abatement

lead paint

With concerns growing across the state and nation about lead contamination in aging water systems, homes, and other buildings, elected leaders in New Jersey continued to drill state officials Monday on their work to prevent and track lead poisoning among vulnerable youngsters.

Acting Health Department Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett defended the state’s program, which has tested more than 200,000 youngsters in each of the past three years. In 2015 the screenings identified 898 kids with enough lead in their blood to prompt a follow-up test and a home visit, she said, but not necessarily high enough to require medical treatment.

“Any level of lead exposure is not something you want to see in children,” Bennett said. When it comes to lead screenings, she assured lawmakers, “We are focused on it and we’ve been focused on it.” New Jersey is one of 17 states nationwide that requires mandatory screenings for young children.

But the state’s commitment to the cause doesn’t make for a perfect system. Bennett said the law actually requires two screenings and while 95 percent of Garden State youth are screened by age six, only 29 percent receive a second test.

“That is obviously a cause for concern,” Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio (D-Mercer) said. “Testing is basically a snapshot in time,” she added, urging the department to consider a broader system of “cumulative” tests that “would give a better, clearer picture of where problems like this are and how we solve them.” Earlier this month Gov. Chris Christie announced he would add $10 million to the state’s current commitment to removing lead paint from residential buildings in low-income communities, through programs operated by the Department of Community Affairs. That commitment would nearly double the amount the state has dedicated to this initiative. The health department also spends some $15 million annually on screenings and lead removal in foster homes, his staff said.

The administration has been under fire from advocates for diverting to other programs funding the state collected specifically for lead remediation through a tax on certain paint products. According to an estimate from the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services, more than $50 millionand possibly as much as $100 million -- has been diverted over the years.

Last month’s discovery of high lead levels in the drinking water at some 30 Newark schools raised additional concerns for these advocates and a growing number of parents. Camden schools have been forced to spend millions in recent years to purchase safe, lead-free water.

Christie’s staff has stressed that the problems uncovered in New Jersey are not nearly on the magnitude of pollution in the municipal water system in Flint, MI, which triggered a renewed awareness of the problem. Lead was once a major component in metal pipes and was included in house paint and other coatings until the late 1970s. As a result, many old communities have infrastructure laced with the toxin.

Dr. Arturo Brito, a deputy commissioner for public health, said lead exposure could result in a range of behavioral and cognitive concerns -- especially for children under age six. But lead-tainted pipes and homes aren’t the only source of contamination, he said.

“We have such a diverse state of individuals, we have a lot of people who are from poor countries and go back and forth from poor countries,” Brito told the budget panel. Sometimes they are exposed overseas, sometimes they contract lead contamination from poorly made cosmetics, toys, or other products that they purchased abroad and brought home, he said. “They are tested(in New Jersey) for lead and they are fine. They go away to their home country and come back and they have elevated lead levels,” Brito added.

But Assemblyman Troy Singleton, (D-Burlington), pressed health department officials to clarify what level of contamination is considered a problem. New Jersey regulations consider 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to be “elevated”; advocates have argued the state should tighten its standard to meet the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Legislation has been introduced in both houses to align New Jersey’s level with the CDC recommendation; Muoio and her budget committee colleague Elaina Pintor Marin (D-Essex) are among the sponsors of the Assembly version

Advocates, including the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said that more than 3,000 children tested in 2015 showed blood-lead levels that exceeded the tighter, 5 microgram standard. Even that level has been associated with attention-related disorders, lower IQ and academic achievement, and more “problem behaviors,” explained Nina Arce, a spokeswoman for the Network.

“The state should follow the CDC's lead and set a standard that would protect the largest number of children,” Arce said.

DOH Communications Director Donna Leusner said after the hearing that advocates have “ deliberately mismatched” data from different years to bolster their argument. Bennett told the Assembly panel that children who test with blood-lead levels higher than 45 micrograms do require medical treatment.

“We don’t want to risk any lead whatsoever in the blood, but you don’t see a medical or clinical issue below 5” micrograms, Bennett said. She insisted that the state’s threshold of 10 micrograms is safe as well.

While acknowledging the challenges involved, budget committee chairman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) spelled out the bottom line: The most important point is, we can’t be allowing our future generations to be affected by this. It’s ridiculous.”

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