UNION COUNTY, NJ — With the recent news that eight additional Newark schools were found to have elevated lead levels in their water, New Jersey legislators are pushing for mandated lead testing in every school district throughout the state.
Senator Ronald L. Rice and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, co-chairs of the state Joint Committee on the Public Schools, have formally requested on behalf of the committee that state Education Commissioner David Hespe order the immediate testing for lead in the state’s approximately 2,500 schools without having to wait until formal legislation is passed.
Recent revelations show that nearly half of Newark’s public schools have elevated levels of lead in their water and that knowledge of the conditions was not publicly disclosed. Currently, there is no requirement that New Jersey schools test the water used for consumption by children or others for lead contamination.
A recently-released report showed that 11 cities and two counties in New Jersey have a higher proportion of children affected by lead than in Flint, Michigan. A higher percentage of children were found with elevated blood lead levels in Irvington, East Orange, Trenton, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Atlantic City, East Brunswick and Passaic, and in Salem and Cumberland counties.
In 2015, there were more than 3,000 new cases of children under six with elevated levels of toxic lead reported in New Jersey. Since 2000, about 225,000 children in the state have been afflicted by lead, according to advocates.
“We have a huge problem on our hands,” said Rice, who says that letters were sent to both Hespe and Gov. Chris Christie with, as of yet, no response. “We need to move to abate the lead now. We need to line the pipes, put filters on, hire engineers. Eventually we need to replace the pipes, and we need to look at environmental issues in the ground.”
Rice says that lead in the pipes and water was a big concern for him during his 16 years on the Newark city council. “In 2003 I pushed legislation to deal with lead paint,” said Rice. “We raised $50 million dollars to deal with it, and then we found out the governor took it,” he said of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who appears to be resisting the effort toward lead-prevention initiatives and mandated testing. “I started to make noise, and then Flint broke loose. People started to pay attention after Flint,” he said, referring to the recent lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Jasey says that she is very concerned about the discovery of lead-contaminated water in Newark schools, and believes that it is indicative of a bigger problem. “The new reports demonstrating the problem is more widespread than we initially believed,” said Jasey in a press release. “We have an obligation as a state to ensure the safety of children, particularly when they are in the care of our schools. As the co-chairs of the committee charged with oversight of the public schools, we are asking the commissioner to order immediate testing for lead in every school in the state. That is the only way to know the extent of the issue we are dealing with and to ensure action is taken to protect against the health hazards that can result from lead exposure.”
In conjunction with the urged initiatives, senate president Steve Sweeney, Rice & Senator M. Teresa Ruiz have introduced a bill requiring testing in all New Jersey schools followed by remediation and parental notification.
The bill would require every school to immediately test the drinking water in the school for the presence of lead and then would test at least twice annually. The first test would be conducted within 30 days prior to the start of the school year, the second conducted six months later.
The legislation would appropriate $3 million to the Department of Education to reimburse the school districts for the testing.
The tests would be conducted in accordance with guidelines provided by the Department of Environmental Protection in conjunction with the Department of Education, with every public school required to provide copies of test results to the commissioners of both departments, make them available to the public free of charge, and notify parents and guardians of the test results.
If the tests detect a level of lead in the drinking water above the “action level,” or concentration established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the school would be required to take immediate steps to provide an alternate drinking water supply.
The bill would require the superintendent of every school district to identify each school building that contains lead pipes, lead solder, or fixtures containing lead, and provide a list of the identified buildings to the DOE commissioner. The bill would also require school districts to install water filters or water treatment devices certified to remove lead on each drinking water fountain and each sink used for food preparation in the identified buildings. The school districts would also be required to maintain and replace those filters in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
The bill would appropriate up to $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund to reimburse school districts for water filters.
“When parents send their children off to school each day they shouldn’t have to fear the terrible consequences of exposure to lead in the drinking water,” said Sweeney in a press release. “Their health and safety are as much of a priority as the education they receive.”
David Saenz Jr., of the New Jersey Department of Education, maintains that they are working with school districts in their efforts to mitigate the problem. “The NJDOE requires schools to comply with the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the NJDOE is working with school districts to make sure they are aware of the situation and have the information and resources they might need,” said Saenz. “When it comes to environmental health issues, the state Department of Environmental Protection is the lead agency, and school districts follow guidance from the DEP and the EPA.”
Ruiz, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says that lead poisoning — which has been shown to cause irreversible brain and nervous system damage, as well as learning and behavioral problems — can be avoided. “Lead poisoning is completely preventable,” said Ruiz in a press release. “It is critical that we take action to identify where the problem exists and understand the scope of the threat.”
Rice asserts that the issue does not only exist in urban public schools. “I don’t believe that we’ll only find problems in urban districts,” said Rice. “We’ll find them in suburban ones, as well. We also have all these preschools and day school locations. We have to take a look at those. This is really a monumental problem that we need to get a grip on right away.”
According to Rice, a visit to Camden area schools just a few weeks ago underscored the pervasiveness of the state’s lead problem. “There’s been a problem in Camden for years,” said Rice. “They’ve been handing out bottled water in their schools for about 12 to 14 years. Those who knew about it tried to come forward, but they were bullied. There is control politics in Camden. It’s a cover-up,” he said of the lead problems in Camden schools. “They have a budget line there for $75,000 dollars for bottled water.”
“This is a public health crisis that cannot and should not be ignored any longer,” said Rice. “The health and safety of every child is important and must be respected. Kids are being classified, and the diagnosis might be wrong. This might be due to lead,” he said.
Sweeney believes that serious and focused action must be taken immediately.
“I firmly believe that we must take proactive steps to make sure lead contamination in water is addressed,” said Sweeney. “The fact of the matter is that it is the government’s job to protect our residents and especially children, and lead poisoning is a serious threat. We can’t allow school children to be exposed to lead contamination. If the threat exists, it must be removed and parents deserve to be informed.”