REYES: More needs to be done to protect NJ kids against lead


Opinions Column: Concrete Jungle Gym


reyes


In December, 2015, Michigan Radio reported that the water at a Flint resident's home returned a lead content of 104 parts per billion (ppb) — almost eight times higher than the action level of 15 ppb set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Flint Water Crisis has been well-covered by the national media but even with the resignation of numerous Michigan officials and a federal class-action lawsuit currently underway, many Americans are only beginning to realize how pervasive our country's lead problem is. Despite federal regulatory decisions that addressed lead in paint, soil, air and water, the current reality tells a story of a nationwide problem that was never fully solved.

One would think that the poisoning of half a million children each year in the U.S. should motivate public officials into action, but the truth of the matter is that the burden of lead primarily falls upon the poor and communities of color in older, urban areas. Lead poisoning is a major inequity intersecting race, ethnicity, class and geography that has grave consequences for the health of children whose growing minds and bodies are particularly susceptible to the naturally occurring toxic metal. Even at low levels, lead exposure can produce irreversible neurological, behavioral and developmental disorders.

The CDC does not have a safe level standard of lead for young children, which makes its elimination critical to actualizing the potential of all kids, especially those of historically disadvantaged groups. While Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that something needs to be done to tackle our deteriorating infrastructure, there is little consensus on funding sources and what projects should be prioritized, leaving our most vulnerable to continue to endure the implications of our negligence.

Although lead in water is a serious issue, as highlighted by recent tests in Newark and Paterson, and rightly should remain a part of the lead prevention strategy, most children are afflicted by lead in their homes and schools by ingesting it from paint found in antiquated buildings. In New Jersey, 11 older urban cities — including New Brunswick — and two rural counties “have a higher proportion of young children with dangerous blood-lead levels than Flint,” according to NJ Advance Media. N.J. Department of Health (DOH) statistics show that "there were more than 3,000 new cases of children under the age of 6 with elevated levels of lead" in 2015 based on the CDC standard of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) and the state uses a higher standard of 10 µg/dL despite understanding how dangerous even acute exposure can be.

Even with increasing awareness, the number of New Jersey children affected by lead continues to rise, making it the top environmental threat to children's health. Despite the creation of the state's Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund more than 12 years ago, governors and the state Legislature have possibly diverted more than $100 million from the lead prevention fund to balance the state budget since its 2004 establishment, according to the Office of Legislative Services. 

Not willing to let this continue any further, the Housing and Community Development Network of N.J., a statewide advocacy association that supports non-profit housing and community development corporations, organized the #LeadFreeKidsNJ campaign. The organization “collected hundreds of children’s hand prints, thousands of petition signatures and sent a letter signed by 109 organizations to Governor Christie” urging him to restore funding for lead control in this year's budget. After more than a year of criticism culminating in this effort, Gov. Christie announced the re-appropriation of $10 million in the FY2016 budget for lead prevention. Just this past Friday, the Department of Community Affairs announced the eight non-profit organizations that were selected to receive grants for lead abatement in the homes of low- and middle-income residents, prioritizing those with young children and pregnant women. The news coincides with the DOH #kNOwLEAD campaign and National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.

It is absolutely shameful that thousands of children have been poisoned by something as highly preventable as lead — no level of funding can undo the damage our representatives have caused. These recent investments are only the first step — 12 years delayed — in preventing lead poisoning and restoring some justice for our kids, families and communities. I challenge our state representatives to commit to putting New Jersey's children first because there should be no doubt in our minds that our kids are truly our most valuable resource.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Concrete Jungle Gym," runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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Thalya Reyes

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