New Jersey officials are ramping up their efforts to curb the impact of lead pollution with the distribution of $10 million in funding to help remediate critical urban dwellings and a new public-relations campaign designed to educate parents on the risks posed to children exposed to the heavy metal.
The state Department of Community Affairs announced Friday that eight non-profit organizations — all part of a federally approved program — were selected to receive grants between $819,000 and $2.1 million to remove lead-based paint in older homes that shelter low- and middle-income residents. The pilot program will prioritize properties with young children and pregnant women, and officials estimate the funding will cover more than 500 homes in all.
The news came with Monday’s launch of a public relations campaign by the Department of Health — titled #kNOwLEAD and timed to coincide with National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week — aimed at increasing awareness about lead hazards and emphasizing the importance of screening children. Lead exposure in children can disrupt normal development of the brain and central nervous system.
Lead poisoning became national news when it became clear that residents in Flint, Michigan, had been drinking lead-contaminated water, and a flurry of testing followed nationwide. In New Jersey, dozens of Newark schools were found to have unsafe levels of the heavy metal in their water, and schools in Camden have been depending on bottled water for several years.
Growing outrage over the issue prompted Gov. Chris Christie to sign a law in May that required all 3,000 schools in the state to implement lead testing protocols starting in September. The governor also tightened the state’s requirements for lead screenings to match the federal standard. Overall, state officials have said they spent nearly $30 million on lead-protection programs in the past five years, and tests show the levels of lead poisoning have declined.
But public-health advocates have said the state must do more to address lead pollution in its aging homes and buildings, the primary source of poisoning in New Jersey; some 3,000 children still tested with elevated lead-levels last year. An NJ Spotlight investigation suggested as much as $100 million may have been diverted from a state fund intended for lead remediation over the past 20 years. Lead is found in house paint in buildings that pre-date 1978, as well as toys, jewelry, cosmetics, pottery, and other items imported from nations that don’t restrict its use in manufacturing.
The pilot program announced Friday seeks to address household remediation, with funding Christie outlined last spring. DCA, the department that oversees lead removal programs, announced it has picked eight community-based non-profit organizations to handle the construction work. It will target one and two-family homes in communities with the highest levels of lead pollution, including Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Irvington, Jersey City, Newark, Passaic, Paterson, Plainfield, and Trenton.
The pilot will offer up to $20,000 for the work on each unit; residents will need to meet an income requirement and earn less than 80 percent of the median in that county. In addition, DCA will collect data from the pilot in hopes of developing an effective and larger program in the future.
[related]“New Jersey has been a national leader in responding to the danger of lead exposure and has made dramatic progress in reducing the risk of exposure,” said DCA Commissioner Charles Richman, noting the state’s building standards, workplace requirements, blood-screening programs, and other prevention efforts. The pilot program is “another tool” in that effort, he said.
The health department’s #kNOwLEAD campaign includes social media components involving other cabinet officials and a new childhood lead webpage, with a video message from DOH officials in Spanish and English. Department leaders will be traveling around the state in the coming weeks to spread the word about the dangers of lead and the importance of being tested.
“Over the last 20 years, the incidence of elevated blood levels in New Jersey children was nearly cut in half, even as 20 times more children were tested,” Bennett said. “Through this new campaign, we will continue working with our partners to decrease these numbers and educate parents about exposure risks.”