Amid increased public awareness of the hazards of being exposed to lead, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday said he would double the $10 million the state is now spending to remove lead-based paint from low-and moderate-income households.
Christie made the announcement at a press conference in his outer office, where he touted New Jersey’s efforts to reduce childhood lead poisoning, a high-priority issue in recent weeks with the revelations about high levels of lead in drinking water in 30 Newark schools.
The governor also has been under fire repeatedly from public-health advocates and lawmakers for vetoing supplemental appropriations for lead programs passed by the Legislature. He has also been accused of not spending money from a tax on paint on lead-abatement efforts in a state where 898 children were found with elevated levels of the toxic metal in their blood.
The primary pathway to lead exposure remains lead-based paint in the state’s older housing stock, a point the governor said has been distorted by the focus on lead in water in schools. Christie also disputed reports he is not spending the $10 million a year supposedly set aside for a lead-abatement program, saying the administration has spent $10.7 million so far this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
In the current budget year, the Department of Community Affairs has spent $7 million to inspect housing to find units likely to contain lead paint. The Department of Health has spent over $3 million to screen young children for elevated levels in their blood.
“So New Jersey’s approach is far more protective than a majority of states’,’’ Christie said, expressing a willingness to work with the Legislature to come up with a spending plan for lead abatement in the upcoming fiscal year.
[related]But Christie stopped short of endorsing proposals to deal with lead-tainted water in schools, including a bill to widen testing of water in all schools in New Jersey for lead and other bills pending in the Legislature to fund replacement of lead service lines and fixtures that may be causing elevated lead levels.
“I want to caution the Legislature to not overreact to this,’’ Christie said in a response to a question. Some of the lead problems in water can be fixed by putting filters on fixtures, he said. If the state directs all schools to begin testing for lead, it would amount to a mandate, forcing the state to pay for testing 4,000 or more schools, he added.
“There is no danger in Newark at the moment,’’ the governor said, adding no one is drinking water that is contaminated.
As for the program to reduce exposure to lead-based paint, Christie said the additional $10 million from the existing budget will provide up to $20,000 per unit to eligible households to fund lead remediation and containment.
Nearly $30 million has been spent on lead-protection programs since fiscal year 2011, according to Christie. More than 200,000 children were tested in 2015, 20 times more than were tested in 1998.
The new initiative drew praise from advocates and lawmakers.
“It’s not enough to solve the whole problem in New Jersey, but it’s a great start,’’ said Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director of Isles, Inc., a community group based in Trenton.
“Exposure to lead — whether it is through paint or water — is serious and the effects of lead on the health of children are irreversible,’’ said Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), who has been a prominent advocate for increased fund for lead-reduction programs. “The action by the governor is only one step in the effort to eliminate lead hazards for all children in our state.’’