Interactive Map: Kids in Every County in New Jersey At Risk for Lead Poisoning

Colleen O'Dea | April 1, 2016 | Map of the Week, Maps
Only difference between richest and poorest counties is the number of children with blood-lead levels at or above the CDC danger threshold

Children in every county in New Jersey have potentially toxic levels of lead in their blood, according to state data.

National statistics show that more children living in poverty across the country have elevated levels of lead in their blood than children in families with higher incomes, but even New Jersey’s wealthiest counties had children affected by lead.

In Hunterdon County, which typically has the highest household income in the state, about 35 children under age 17, or 3.5 percent of all those tested, had at least 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of their blood in the 2014 fiscal year, according to the state Department of Health’s most recent “Childhood Lead Poisoning in New Jersey” report.

But the highest percentage of children tested found to have blood levels of the heavy metal at or above the reference amount the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers dangerous was in Salem County, whose median household income is about $12,000 less than the state average. There, 11.5 percent of children tested, or a total of 85, had lead-blood levels of at least 5 micrograms.

Essex County had largest number of children at or above the CDC level: 1,602, or 5 percent of children tested. Passaic had the second greatest number, 610 or 3.4 percent of those tested.

For the past 20 years, the state has required the testing of children between ages 1 and 2, or by age 6, for lead in the blood, said Dawn Thomas, a Department of Health spokeswoman. New Jersey is one of only 17 states to require universal testing.

Lead has been in the spotlight in New Jersey since the beginning of the year for several reasons.

In early January, at the end of the last legislative session, Gov. Chris Christie pocket vetoed a bill that would have appropriated $10 million for lead abatement. Lawmakers are trying again, with each house passing a bill (S-996/A-1378) to add that much money to the current budget, but it’s unclear whether their efforts will be successful. Christie last month said the issue has been “over-dramatized.”

Last month Newark schools reported that roughly half their buildings had levels of lead in their water that was above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s treatment-action level of 15 parts per billion. The problem dates back at least four years, with four buildings reporting lead levels of more than 1,000 parts per billion in the past year or two. The highest level, 2,290 parts per billion at BRICK/Avon Academy, was 153 times higher than the EPA action level.

Lawmakers are now pushing bills to requires all schools to test their water for lead and spend $20 million to help schools remediate high lead-in-water levels.

Lead is more harmful to children than adults because it can affect children’s developing nerves and brains, according to the National Institutes of Health. Childhood exposure to lead has lifelong consequences, including decreased cognitive function, developmental delays, and behavioral problems. Exposure to very high levels can cause seizures, coma and death.

Some health organizations, like the National Center for Environmental Health, aver that there is no safe blood-lead threshold for children. Although chelation — an intravenous treatment in which a synthetic solution is injected into the bloodstream to remove heavy metals — is sometimes used to treat lead poisoning, there is no way to reverse damage to children.

Lead in paint — outlawed in 1978 but still on walls and moldings in many homes and apartments — and lead dust are usually considered the leading causes of poisoning. The EPA says that water is responsible for as much as 20 percent of the lead that poisons children. Most of that is due to lead leaching from pipes and sealants.
Given the age and deteriorating conditions of much of Camden’s housing stock, we know that lead exposure is always a risk,” Bridget Phifer, executive director of the Camden-based Parkside Business and Community in Partnership, said recently. “Even demolition can be harmful if appropriate precautions aren’t taken because the dust spreads so easily.”

The state health department reports lead testing results for 67 of the state’s largest municipalities. The 10 with the greatest number of children tested were all cities. Newark had the most children at the CDC reference level — 800, or roughly half all those testing high in Essex County. Jersey City followed with 347 and Paterson had 310. In Atlantic City, 177 children tested at or above 5 micrograms, representing more than 10 percent of all those tested.

Some 840 children in New Jersey had lead blood levels of at least 10 micrograms per deciliter, twice the CDC reference level.

Advocates said that in 2015, there were more than 3,000 new cases of children under 6 with elevated levels of toxic lead reported in New Jersey. County and municipal data are not yet available. Since 2000, about 225,000 children in the state have been afflicted by lead, according to advocates.

Thomas said that the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has been declining steadily and is roughly half what it was when testing began 20 years ago, even as the percent tested has been rising.

Legislators are pushing other lead-related bills, as well.

One bill (S1937/A3585) would require municipalities to conduct lead paint inspections in single- and two-family dwellings and report the results to the state. It has already cleared a Senate committee. Another bill, which has passed the Senate, would require the state to adopt the CDC lead standards.

Thomas said the DOH spends about $13 million a year for home-visitation programs, case management, and environmental investigations. It also spent $4.4 million in federal funds for lead testing in communities hard hit by superstorm Sandy.