UNION COUNTY, NJ — There is a crisis in New Jersey, but Gov. Chris Christie isn’t home — and he isn’t the only one.
Recently it was revealed that 11 cities and two counties in New Jersey have higher lead levels than in Flint, Michigan, a city that was declared to be in a state of emergency due to a contaminated water supply found to have alarmingly high levels of lead.
According to New Jersey Department of Health statistics from 2014, these cities and counties had a higher percentage of children with elevated lead levels than those in Flint in 2015. Irvington, East Orange, Trenton, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Atlantic City, New Brunswick and Passaic are communities named on the list, along with Salem and Cumberland counties. And, according to Nina Arce, Media Coordinator of the Housing and Community Network of New Jersey, the problem of toxic lead levels in our state is not new. “This is a problem going back many, many years,” said Arce. “A lot of communities, especially the ones in Union County, are old communities and this is an issue.”
But the issue is far from limited to a tainted water supply. According to Elyse Pivnick, director of environmental health for Isles, Inc., a community development organization based in Trenton, 80 percent of lead exposure actually comes from older homes. “We became complacent,” said Pivnick. “Lead was taken out of new paint and gas in the ’70s, and it has reduced it. But the data hides the facts. The numbers hide the fact that urban kids are poisoned two to four times higher than their suburban peers.”
Some of the data Pivnick is referring to is established by The Center for Disease Control, who uses a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels that are much higher than normal. Yet according to Pivnick, this is a problem.
“The CDC decided that they were going to look at the highest 2.5 percent of test results, yet at the same time they say there are no safe levels of lead,” said Pivnick of the CDC.
While the CDC only makes recommendations, it is the New Jersey Department of Health who oversees lead screening of children. Once health care providers provide lead screening, the results are then forwarded to the NJDOH and included in their annual lead surveillance report. The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs supervises 5-year cyclical inspections of rental buildings with three or more units, as well as those with one or two, but according to Pivnick, the money just isn’t there. “They say they never received funding to staff this policy,” says Pivnick of the NJDCA.
According to Pivnick, there were more than 3,000 new cases in New Jersey in 2015 of children under the age of 6 with elevated levels of lead in their blood. Since 2000, about 225,000 young children in the state have been afflicted.
Which begs the question: Why is this happening?
According to lawmakers and advocacy groups, this is a problem that could have and should have been addressed years ago by using funds that were supposed to go toward lead abatement and prevention programs, but instead were siphoned off by Christie and used to fill gaps in the state’s budget.
“There was a tax placed on new paint years ago,” said Pivnick, of the state law mandating a 50 cents-per-gallon tax on the retail sale of paint — funds that were supposed to go toward the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund. “The governor took the money and used it to balance the budget instead of using it for lead issues.”
The fund, created by the state legislature in 2004, was to allocate resources to remove lead from older homes by offering deferred payment loans and grants to property owners. It was also to go directly to implementing mitigation and prevention through repair and remediation of older homes, financing home inspections, relocating affected families, as well as to statewide, regional, and community-based education and outreach, and training courses.
According to Pivnick, lead abatement costs between five and twelve thousand dollars per home. “These old cities have a legacy of old paint,” said Pivnick, who also noted that these communities are economically disadvantaged. “This is not a one-sector problem. People need to come together to create better policy.”
Yet, since 2009, more than $50 million has been diverted into the state’s budget instead of into the fund as required.
In January, Christie vetoed a bill introduced by state lawmakers that voted to allocate $10 million from the state budget to the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund, one of several bills dedicated to reallocating lead hazard funds that Christie has vetoed.
Then in February, state lawmakers passed the same legislation once again, which calls for the “appropriation from the State General Fund of $10 million to the Department of Community Affairs for the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund.”
The bill would expand home inspection regulations and require municipalities to conduct lead inspections in one and two-family rentals. “If the bill gets passed, maybe more resources would become available,” said Arce.
Arce went on to say that other advocacy groups including Isles, Inc.; N.J. Citizen Action; the Anti-Poverty Network of N.J.; Latino Action Network; the State Chapter of the NAACP; the N.J. Working Families Alliance; and others, have sent a letter to Christie urging him to reallocate the much-needed funds toward abatement and prevention, and are being proactive in getting the bill passed. “We’re trying to get every single senator and assemblymember to stand with us and take on this cause,” said Arce. “Then maybe he’ll pay attention,” she said of Christie.
Calls to the Governor’s office went unreturned.
Tammori Petty, director of communications at the New Jersey Department of Human Affairs, tells a different story and says that lead levels in the state are decreasing. “The Division of Codes and Standards within the N.J. Dept. of Community Affairs does this by enforcing the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Regulations, NJAC 5:10, which includes enforcement of the requirements for lead-safe maintenance,” said Petty. “New Jersey is out ahead of the majority of states in that we continue to regularly and systematically inspect multi-family housing for lead-based paint hazards. Due to these multi-family housing inspections, the state’s previous work in lead abatement and the simple fact that lead-based paint has been banned since 1978, incidents of childhood lead poisoning in New Jersey have steadily declined.”
Christie has stated that lead levels in the state are “nowhere near crisis,” but Pivnick is doubtful that many people stand with him on this issue. “I don’t think a parent in Newark, Trenton or Camden agree with him,” said Pivnick. “It’s not a crisis because he is complacent with the fact that 3,100 children had high lead levels for the first time in 2015. If this was a new virus or poison affecting New Jersey’s children, I doubt there would be the same complacency. Governor Christie effectively is saying this is the best we can do. This is not true.”
The ripple effect of Christie’s refusal to take the lead issue is apparent. On The State of New Jersey’s web site, a 79-page document titled, “Lead Poisoning Elimination Plan,” dates back to 2010. In it are objectives, data and goals for the state of New Jersey — all from six years ago. “The State of New Jersey and the DHSS have a long history of responding to lead poisoning in children,” reads the dated document.
Repeated attempts to contact the Department of Health, as well as the Department of Community Affairs, went unanswered as of press time.
Sebastian D’Elia, director of communications for Union County, said that each individual municipality within the county is directed to handle their own lead issues. “No matter what, if you think you have lead paint, you call your individual municipality,” said D’Elia.
Yet calls by this newspaper to individual municipalities resulted either in uncertainty as to who actually dealt with the issues of lead abatement, or a directive to call the county government for answers.
Pivnick believes that the approach towards lead-poisoning prevention needs to change.
“We need better presentation of the problem, better public policy, consumer education, education of decision makers, and involvement of the education sector.” said Pivnick.
“Housing codes need to be enforced. Section 8 landlords are not even asked to provide lead-free certificates on their properties. We have to define the problem, not ignore it. If the problem is well-defined we can start solving it. Why aren’t we systematically testing our homes before there is a problem? We need to ask housing inspectors to check homes.”
Arce believes that the government needs to intervene now. “Children are getting sick, and the government needs to step in and do something,” she said. “I hate to say it, but if it wasn’t for Flint this wouldn’t be getting the attention it is.”