Menendez bill targets fed regulations on lead exposure in public housing

 Published March 7, 2016
By Terrence McDonald

JERSEY CITY — As residents of Flint, Michigan continue to grapple with toxic levels of lead in the city's drinking water, Sen. Robert Menendez wants to require more stringent regulations regarding lead exposure in federally subsidized housing.

Speaking at the Booker T. Washington public-housing complex in Downtown Jersey City this morning, Menendez, D-N.J., said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is using "outdated and ineffective" standards to determine when it should intervene in cases of lead poisoning. Menendez's bill would force HUD to align its definition of lead poisoning with the more stringent guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is more than just common sense," he said. "This is about protecting our most precious resource, our children, from risks that are squarely within our control to remedy."

Menendez was joined by Mayor Steve Fulop, community activists and Douglas Ratner, a doctor from Jersey City Medical Center-Barnabas Health and chair of its department of medicine. Ratner noted that there are no safe levels of lead exposure for children.

"I applaud any legislation that brings these levels down," Ratner said.

A request for comment from HUD was not immediately returned.

In February, Jersey City was included on a list of 11 New Jersey municipalities that have a higher proportion of young children with dangerous lead levels than Flint, largely because of children ingesting paint found in older homes.

HUD regulations do not call for intervention until after a child's blood lead level is 20 micrograms per deciliter, levels that lead to permanent brain damage. CDC guidelines recommend intervention at 5 micrograms per deciliter.

In December, NJ Spotlight reported that more than 3,100 young children in New Jersey were found to have elevated levels of lead in 2015. Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said today that amounts to an epidemic.

"We live in one of the greatest states in one of the greatest countries in the world," Berger said. "We should be able to solve this problem."

Menendez's bill would also require HUD and the Environmental Protection Agency to update lead-contaminated dust and soil standards; remove lead inspection exemptions for studio apartments occupied by families with children under the age of 6; require HUD to issue rules that would allow families to relocate on an emergency basis without loss of assistance; and more.

The bill would also authorize funding to pay for the regulations for five years. Menendez said there is no estimate for the cost yet.

"Our children in any city should not be subjected to toxins in their home," Fulop said today.

Terrence T. McDonald may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @terrencemcd. Find The Jersey Journal on Facebook.