Christie should restore funds to protect children from lead poisoning

New Jersey Governor Christie's veto of funds to prevent lead poisoning hurts kids and makes no economic sense, explains the executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey in The Star-Ledger.

March 8, 2016

When Rashaniea Bradley's one-year-old son began having seizures, she was in for a shock. Blood tests revealed highly poisonous elevated lead levels.

Still prone to seizures, her little boy has a developmental delay as a result of the toxic exposure. Rashaniea, a Trenton mother of two, knows he may develop additional symptoms as he grows up, because lead poisoning is a life-long illness.

It is also completely preventable — and Gov. Chris Christie should protect our children by doing the right thing: Restore resources to the state's lead mitigation fund.

More than 225,000 young children in New Jersey have been poisoned by lead since 2000 with 3,100 just in the last year. Lead causes permanent neurological damage in children, negatively affects academic performance, and can cause a wide array of learning disabilities and behavioral issues.

The state has failed thousands of children like Rashaniea's by siphoning funds dedicated to address this epidemic, using them to fill budget gaps for the last six years. Despite promising he would include funding if it were a priority for New Jersey and then receiving a letter signed by 109 organizations urging him to include these funds in his budget, Christie continues to take resources away from families and communities.

In older communities, lead still exists in many homes, because repair, relocation and remediation are expensive. Recognizing the cost to test for lead, remove it, and temporarily relocate the household, the state Legislature created the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund (LHCAF) in 2004 to allocate resources to remove lead from older homes by offering deferred payment loans or grants to property owners.

The fund has also financed home inspections, emergency relocations for affected families and public education efforts about the risks of living in homes built before lead-based paints were banned.

State law mandates that 50 cents per gallon from the retail sale of paint must go towards the Lead Hazard fund. Yet, since 2009, more than $50 million has been steered into the general treasury instead of the fund as required. Lead continues to plague homes and harm children and families around the state which is why it is unconscionable Christie diverts these funds in the budget.

It costs between $5,000-$12,000 per home to remediate lead exposure. This investment in the safety and well-being of New Jersey's children also saves money; avoiding lead exposure can save $32,000 per child, per year and up to $27 billion statewide.

The Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, 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 scores of others are urging Gov. Christie and the Legislature to appropriate the $10 million collected to the Lead Hazard fund in the budget, as well as enact inspections of one and two bedroom family rentals for lead poisoning. 

Combined, these measures would protect thousands of children who are exposed to lead poisoning every day. 

"The governor spoke a lot about 'the next generation' in his budget speech but he fails to protect them by robbing the funds that keep them safe," Ann Vardeman, of N.J. Citizen Action, said.

Officials in Michigan are in the national spotlight for the appalling decisions they made that poisoned the city of Flint.

As a nation, we are rightly horrified by what has happened there. It is equally outrageous that, right here in New Jersey, where we have the funds dedicated by law to prevent lead poisoning, we face a similar crisis. According to Isles, there are 13 communities where children have higher lead exposure than what has been found in Flint.

"Over 3,000 New Jersey children were identified with elevated blood lead levels for the first time in 2015," Elyse Pivnick of Isles said.

In Flint, 112 children were diagnosed with elevated levels this year. One child, anywhere, is one child too many.

Tools exist to prevent childhood lead poisoning. State leaders must do right by Rashaniea and her children, and thousands of families like theirs, by putting what consumers pay at the register into the fund where it belongs.  Our children deserve nothing less.

View the op-ed in The Star-Ledger.

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