Lead exposure remains a persistent problem for Newark’s kids

Each time a window with chipping, lead-based paint opens or closes, it’s causing harmful exposure. It takes the equivalent of just three sugar grains of lead to place a child in danger. And in Newark, an old city with an even older housing stock, it’s a persistent problem.

“We have about one-quarter of kids who have some level of lead exposure, not enough to trigger a health department response, but enough that their lives may be impacted in the long term,” said Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Despite Newark’s progress in reducing the number of children with elevated blood lead levels, kids in the city are twice as likely to have lead poisoning compared to children statewide. And while drinking water is an issue, the main culprit continues to be paint in homes, schools and public spaces.

“Our goal has to be to eliminate lead from the environment before kids get exposed, and that requires resources,” said Dr. Denise Rodgers, vice chancellor of Interprofessional Programs with Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

A new 2018 Newark Kids Count report highlights the need. The city’s rate of investigating and removing lead from homes lags behind other, similar towns with high caseloads. Newark’s completed home investigations for 2016 was 16 percent, with zero abatements. Meanwhile, places like Jersey City, Paterson and Plainfield completed nearly all or 100 percent of investigations and are making progress toward remediation.

“There are lots of obstacles to abatement. Cooperation of the landlord, the family may move out, and there’s not necessarily tons of funding for a program that has abatements that can cost upward of $20,000 to $30,000 per unit,” said Chen.

“Lead poisoning is a housing-based issue with a health outcome. If we can find ways to make sure that families are removed immediately from poison houses that have hazards, then we’ll really reduce the levels of children being poisoned at that rate. That is the core of the problem,” said Shonda Bryant, coordinator for the Childhood Lead Poison Prevention Program with the Newark Department of Health.

“It’s very concerning, especially with our infrastructure being so old. How are we going to fix that infrastructure? Where are we going to get the money from? How are we going to get the funding? Are there different organizations that we can work with to get the funding and be creative with these ideas to make sure that our children are safe?” asked parent advocate Tanisha Garner.

The report also points out 68 percent of Newark children live in low-income households, compared to 31 percent statewide. The majority of families there also spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The infant mortality rate remains almost double that of the state, though education improvements are a bright spot in the report — a 10 percent increase in the number of children enrolled in full day preschool over the last five years.

“The fundamental problem for so many of these children is poverty, and we are in the richest country on earth. We can eliminate not only poverty in children, but poverty in their families as well,” said Rogers.

Solutions will come down to collaboration between local, state and federal governments, because as long as both lead and poverty remain in homes and throughout the city, children remain at risk.

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