Published December 11, 2015
By Todd Bates

After years of being raided by governors and lawmakers, fund to fight lead poisoning would get enough cash to start doing its job

A fund for preventing lead poisoning -- frequently raided to help balance state budgets since 2004 -- would get $10 million under a bill approved by an Assembly panel.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to send the legislation (A-2325/S-1279) to the full Assembly for consideration. If the Assembly approves the measure, the state Senate, which approved similar legislation in June, would have to vote on it again.

The Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund -- created in 2004 -- is aimed at preventing childhood lead poisoning, which damages the brain, lowers IQ, and causes behavioral and learning problems that can linger for a lifetime. But only $23.3 million of the $77 million to $154 million that was supposed to go into the fund through June this year actually made it there.

“This is not an issue about quality of life,” said Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer, D-Bergen, who voted to approve the bill. “It’s an issue literally of life itself.”

The vote follows a two-part NJ Spotlight investigative package that revealed that elevated lead levels have been detected in more than 3,000 young children in New Jersey this year. The grand total since 2000 is about 225,000 kids under six years old -- exactly the ones who are most vulnerable to the ravages of lead poisoning. The package also delved into the state’s failure to fulfill a 2008 law to ensure that one- and two-family rental units are inspected and lead-safe.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), a physician, said “these changes to the child’s brain (from lead poisoning) are permanent. You can’t make it up and these monies that have been taken from this fund are really consigning children and (the) adults they become to less attainment of skills that they otherwise might. It is a tragedy. It’s preventable. Something has to be done about this.”

Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Essex) said “as the sponsor of the bill and as someone who has seen individuals, young children, friends who were diagnosed with lead poisoning and now to see them functioning as best they can as adults, it’s important that we make the proper appropriation and that those children who are exposed to it get the care and treatment that (is) needed, that the homes are abated to what they should be.”

The 2004 law that created the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund was supposed to result in these lead-poisoning prevention efforts, among others:

    Low-interest loans and grants to the owners of housing units to control lead-based paint hazards.

    Money to relocate lead-poisoned children and their families from lead-tainted housing.

    A Department of Community Affairs lead-safe housing registry. But the New Jersey Online Lead Safe Registry’s map, which is supposed to show rental and owner-occupied lead-safe housing, is not available.

Since 2004, Democratic and Republican governors and legislators approved state budgets that took $50 million-plus in tax revenues from the sales of paint and other surface coatings. That money was supposed to go into the lead fund, which has been almost empty for several years.

Meanwhile, more than 130,000 kids have had at least 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood since 2004. Public health efforts and case management are supposed to kick in at that level, under a 2012 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline that New Jersey has yet to adopt.

Unfortunately, trying to verify that information or research other aspects of lead poisoning on websites the state set up for that purpose can be virtually impossible.

More than 10 years ago, both the state and the nation set a goal of eliminating elevated levels of lead in children by 2010. They failed.

Myles O’Malley, of the nonprofit Childhood Lead Poisoning Emergency Response, said “the expropriation” of money from the lead fund “has been devastating to our state and city and rental response to childhood lead poisoning.”

Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said the lead fund revival bill is “very worthy. You’ve heard the price tag on this particular one. I don’t know that we have $10 million in a drawer somewhere …”

“Clearly that money is going to have to be found somewhere, but certainly the intent is laudable for the program,” he said.

Arnold Cohen, senior policy coordinator at the nonprofit Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said “lead continues to be a problem. Over 3,000 children with high levels of toxic lead were discovered this year alone. There’s over $50 million that has gone into the lead-hazards control program that has been used to backfill the budget. What this bill is asking for is that $10 million of that be used for a very critical purpose.”

Cohen added: “We’re going to be bringing together all the advocates around this issue to put together a strategy for the New Year to continue the work on the different aspects of it because it’s critical.”

Todd B. Bates, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service, is a freelance environmental, health and science writer and an investigative reporter. He was a staff reporter for New Jersey newspapers for nearly 35 years. His last assignment was covering the environment and severe weather as a member of the Investigations Team at the Asbury Park Press.