Opinion: There is no excuse for allowing lead in children’s drinking water

Opinion: There is no excuse for allowing lead in children’s drinking water

By Rose McNulty  — @rose_mcnulty

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, cities around the country are testing their water and discovering that lead levels are unsafe. One such city is Newark, where test results last month showed that 30 schools were found to have high levels of lead in the drinking water. Just this week, more testing showed that there are high lead levels in even more school buildings.

This is outrageous, especially considering that water testing has shown high levels of lead in Newark schools’ water since at least 2012. Something needs to be done, especially since high levels of lead affect children the most. It can affect their behavior and their ability to learn.

Christopher Cerf, the district superintendent, has ordered that the water fountains and kitchen faucets be shut off in the 30 schools where at least one one tenth of the samples had higher lead levels than the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion. This amount is the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for taking action.

In New Jersey, 11 cities and two counties have been found to have more children with dangerous levels of lead than Flint, Michigan. Now, with the problem in Flint getting so much attention, advocacy groups have taken the opportunity to try and renew efforts to have this problem fixed.

In low-income areas, children are at risk from high levels of lead not only in the tap water, but also in the paint in old buildings. While it is widely believed that most buildings no longer have this issue, low-income cities with older buildings still suffer from this problem.

“You can breathe it in from dust and you can swallow it,” Elyse Pivnick, director of environmental health for Isles, Inc., a community development organization based in Trenton, said. Older homes are more likely to have problems with lead due to aging paint or the corrosion of pipes containing lead. This is less of an issue for adults who have a higher tolerance for lead, but in fetuses, infants and young children even low levels can be harmful.

“In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Unfortunately, most of the places where this is a problem are low-income areas, and the money to fix the problem just isn’t there. Gov. Chris Christie changed his mind about vetoing a bill setting aside $10 million for the lead control assistance fund. He said that it was “proven to him” that it is necessary to spend money on this problem, according to NJ Advance Media.

The bill that Christie passed commits $10 million to removing lead in about 500 homes built before lead paint was outlawed in 1978. Members of the Democratic-controlled legislature say that the money collected each year from the lead abatement fund supported by a 50-cent paint tax is regularly used in the general fund and that this legislation is necessary.

This is a step in the right direction, but the water issue does not benefit from it. Lead in the paint is an issue all its own, but the bottom line is that children in schools are drinking water with high lead levels and no one at the state level is doing anything substantial to fix it. While Newark schools have replaced faucets and filtering systems in the past, there are much larger problems in the infrastructures of old buildings that need to be addressed.

It is disheartening that this problem flew under the radar for so long before the news of Flint’s problem broke. It is not right to allow young children to keep drinking this water, no matter how many people insist that the levels are not high enough to cause serious damage.

Gov. Chris Christie has largely avoided addressing this issue, and he claims that it is because this is not a crisis.

“I don’t want there to be panic,” said Christie, “I go charging down there with the state troopers and the whole ‘show’ that happens when I show up someplace, that can lead to some panic as well, sometimes.” Good thing he cleared that up.

When it comes to lead ingestion, there doesn’t need to be a full-on crisis to warrant action. There is no arguing with the statistic that over 3,000 new cases of elevated lead levels in children under the age of 6 were found in New Jersey win 2015, according to Pivnick.

Any number of children with elevated lead levels in too high, because this is a problem that has to be rectified at some point. The government cannot just let this problem continue, because it will only worsen as these buildings age and it will start to have even more of an effect on the children who consume it.