New Push to Prevent Lead Poisoning Driven by Pair of Democratic Bills

Lilo H. Stainton | March 2, 2016 | Health Care
One measure would fully fund lead-abatement account at $10M; another would bring blood-lead levels in line with CDC

lead paint
Democratic lawmakers will try again to expand New Jersey’s efforts to prevent lead poisoning in children, just over a month after Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a previous attempt to reinstate millions in funding to help property owners remove traces of the toxic heavy metal from aging buildings.

One measure, sponsored by longtime lead-abatement advocate Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), shifts $10 million into an account established for this purpose that has gone unfunded since Christie took office. Another, sponsored by Rice and health committee chairman Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), updates the state’s testing requirements for lead poisoning to match federal standards and outlines a more proactive strategy for screening and remediation.

The new bills follow hearings held by the state Assembly and Senate in the wake of national news coverage of the high lead levels in the public water system in Flint, MI. “We have our own crisis here in New Jersey with thousands of children each year registering elevated lead levels in their blood,” Rice said when re-introducing the funding bill in February, urging state officials to do “everything in our power to address” the problem.

The measures seek to address concerns raised by local environmental health advocates, who have complained for years that New Jersey isn’t doing enough to protect children, particularly in poor communities where lead levels tend to be higher. Lead was added to paint and other products used in homes built before the late 1970s; children ingest the toxins by eating paint chips and breathing tainted dust, among other ways.

Congressman weighs in

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has also added his voice to the cause. He raised questions about New Jersey’s efforts to curb lead poisoning in a letter to state officials last month and joined a hearing on Monday to reiterate his concerns. Lead poisoning can cause developmental delays, mental impairment, and even premature death in some children.

“The continuing problem of lead poisoning in our nation’s children is an example of our broader failure at all levels of government to invest in our infrastructure, and in public health and safety,” Pallone said. “Budget cuts and austerity force hard choices between competing priorities — and sometimes result in choices that are unwise, unjust, and short-sighted.”

Some 225,000 young children in New Jersey have been afflicted by lead poisoning since 2000, including more than 3,000 who tested positive for high lead levels last year alone, according to state officials. Data shows the number of lead-poisoning cases has declined dramatically over that same period; in 2000, some 27,000 youngsters had high lead levels in their blood, nearly nine times the number reported in 2015.

Despite this trend, advocates for lead-abatement programs say much more can be done to prevent children from getting poisoned. According to a 2014 report from advocates, some 11 cities in New Jersey had a greater percentage of residents with high lead-levels than the rate found in Flint. Low-income communities are particularly at risk of lead poisoning because of their older housing stock, proximity to former industrial or toxic sites, and lack of quality healthcare options for residents who do get sick.

“If 3,000 children are testing positive (annually), clearly we can do a better job,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a leading advocate for lead poisoning treatment and prevention programs.

Berger welcomed the testing bill, which would align the state’s blood lead-level standards with recommendations from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State regulations now consider 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to constitute lead poisoning; the CDC level is half that, at 5 micrograms. The proposal also calls on state health officials to be more proactive in testing children, educating families about the problems, and remediating lead hazards.

Pushing prevention

“We support anything that brings attention to the issue and we support the intent of the bill,” Berger said Tuesday. “The problem is, we’re still using infants and toddlers as lead detectors. We do it backwards. We wait for a child to get lead poisoning and then say, ‘Oh, they must have lead in their home’.”

[related]That’s why Rice’s proposed $10 million supplementary appropriation to the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund is so important, Berger said. Created in 2004, the Lead Hazard fund is the only state account dedicated specifically to preventing lead poisoning — not testing for the affliction or treating the side effects.

The fund was designed to accrue between $7 million and $10 million a year from a sales tax on certain paint products, but it hasn’t been fully stocked for years. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, nearly $54 million — and possibly up to $100 million — has been diverted from this account to pay for other programs over the years.

“The most important thing we can be doing is prevention,” agreed Elyse Pivnick, the environmental health director at Isles, Inc. a nonprofit community group in Trenton that advocates for lead abatement. Pivnick also underscored the need to reinstate funding for the Lead Hazard fund. “As it is now, it’s like waiting for the canary in the coal mine to keel over.”

Pivnick fully supports the testing bill, but notes that too will require additional resources, since the lower, CDC-recommended threshold for lead poisoning will flag a potential hazard in the blood of thousands of additional children each year. “It’s a great bill and the next challenge the state will have is how to fund and implement it,” she said. “The local public health departments are going to need more resources.”

Current investment

The Department of Health already invests nearly $15 million annually in lead screening and abatement efforts, according to spokeswoman Donna Leusner. That includes some $11 million DOH passes on to the Division of Children and Families, the agency within the Department of Human Services that oversees child welfare, to pay for efforts to reduce lead hazards in foster homes. Another $2 million is split among county and local health departments serving communities with the highest lead levels and $350,000 is distributed to a handful of community groups and educational institutions — including nearly $100,000 to Isles, Inc. in Trenton.

The state also committed $4.4 million in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to help protect communities devastated by the storm from the additional danger of lead exposed in the rubble. The funds, from federal sources, helped county and local officials test nearly 15,600 residents in a dozen hard-hit towns.

Two decades ago New Jersey started requiring lead screening for children between six months and two years old. Leusner said children are tested in hospitals, doctors offices, clinics, and county and local health offices; women visiting any of the state’s 10 Women and Infant Children sites are required to have their babies screened. Today the data is transmitted electronically to state health officials, who work with local counterparts to follow up on positive tests with a visit to the child’s home and outreach to the family.