On the hardwood floor of a Camden apartment, a toddler crawls in circles, playing with her favorite stuffed bunny. Sunlight streams through the picture window framed by peeling white paint. The midafternoon light illuminates the tiny flakes of dust swirling like snow from a snow globe, before settling on the floor around her.
She makes the bunny hop from the sofa to the chair, gathering the nearly invisible dust on its paws. Giggling, she chews on the toy, delighted at the sweet taste. With this innocent act, her life is changed forever.
She has become one of the 5,000 children poisoned by lead each year in New Jersey.
Lead poisoning, which causes irreversible brain damage and disproportionately affects our state’s most vulnerable children, is easily prevented. By supporting state Senate Bill S1279, we can restore the nearly depleted fund to remove this hidden threat.
Though lead was outlawed as a paint additive in 1978, it lingers in older homes, posing a special danger in poorly maintained low-income housing. Young children often ingest the poison while crawling on floors contaminated by paint dust, and then putting fingers and toys into their mouths. Often, they are drawn to the sweet taste of the metal.
Tragically, the children most easily exposed are also those who suffer the worst effects. Lead is devastating to a child’s developing brain, causing learning disabilities, significantly lowered IQ and behavioral problems. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that particles only the size of two grains of sugar per day, ingested over a month, can cause impairment.
This devastation, in turn, ripples throughout our society. By impairing the brain mechanisms that govern impulse control and recognition of consequences, the toxin increases the likelihood of aggressive, criminal and even violent behavior. Studies by Harvard researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, economist Rick Nevin and others have closely linked childhood lead exposure with crime rates.
Lead constitutes a special hazard for our state, due to the aged housing stock in New Jersey’s cities. Further, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, lead safety is imperative as damaged homes are restored. Yet New Jersey’s lead standards lag shamefully behind those of other states.
Though there are no safe levels, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set the threshold of concern at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. New Jersey has not only failed to formally adopt this guideline, but has consistently mismanaged the fund meant to remedy our lead problem.
New Jersey’s Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund provides lead abatement, home testing, and lead safety education. However, an Asbury Park Press investigation revealed that since 2004, over $50 million has been diverted from the fund to pay routine state salaries and bills. In a further demonstration of negligence, state officials have failed to enact a 2008 law to ensure lead-safe conditions in one- and two-family rentals.
While the harm from lead is irreversible, New Jersey’s pattern of neglect is not.
With S1279, we can ensure a lead-safe future for our state’s children. The bill, scheduled for a March 9 hearing, will pump $10 million into the nearly empty lead hazard control fund. These funds will be used to abate lead-contaminated buildings, provide emergency relocation and early intervention for children with elevated blood lead levels, offer training in lead-safe building maintenance, and distribute free dust-wipe kits for families and X-ray fluorescence analyzers for health departments. It will also promote statewide education and transparency regarding this insidious toxin.
By voicing support for S1279, we can let our state senators know that the futures of low-income children matter. Through the simple, cost-effective measures provided by this bill, New Jersey can save thousands of innocent children from the scourge of lead poisoning.
Valerie Saturen is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in In These Times, Yes! Magazine, the Jewish Week, Next Step Magazine and other publications. She lives in North Haledon.