A new law state that mandates tougher protection for thousands of children at risk of lead poisoning provides just a fraction of the potentially $10 million needed to carry out the expanded health mission.
Because the funding is missing from the bill, county and township health officials say the gap will force them to make choices on what to prioritize — restaurant inspections or childhood lead protection, for example.
On Feb. 6, Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a measure that cuts in half the amount of lead that must be found in a child's blood before health officials will intervene to protect them from unidentified lead hazards in their home.
As a result, children (such as Liam in the video above) who are being exposed to lead — whether through lead-based paint in their home, tainted soil in their backyard or old water pipes in their kitchen — will be identified earlier and hopefully avoid the most destructive effects that lead poisoning can wreak on a developing body and mind.
But the law funds only 15 percent of what could be a $10 million increase on local health agencies. Public health officials praised the intention of the law, but told the Asbury Park Press that they'll have to reduce services elsewhere in their budget to pay for it
"The practical effect is that we’ll be hard pressed and challenged as to how we effectively run this program and still do everything else on our plate," said David Henry, health officer for Monmouth County Regional Health Commission. "We may have to cut back on food inspections or something, cut back in other areas to have the health of our children as a priority."
In New Jersey, all children are required to be tested at both 12 and 24 months of age and every child older than 3 must be tested at least once before they turn 6.No safe level of lead in a child's blood has been identified and lead exposure can affect nearly every system in a child's growing body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The effects of lead are irreversible.
"Lead poisoning is what you would call insidious," said Dr. Kristine McCoy, executive director of the Center for Primary Care and Public Health at the VNA Health Group "It’s a slow thing. It's not like the child starts throwing up or having headaches, unless it's really high levels. But in lower levels it can delay their growth, their physical growth, it can affect their moods, personality changes and school performance. They might not be as clear thinking and not be able to concentrate as well. … The same child without lead in their system might be doing much, much better in school."
In 2014, New Jersey reported 840 cases at or above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the current threshold. In that same year, 5,184 other children — six times as many— were tested at 5 or more micrograms, the benchmark for action under the new law.
A high test triggers a response by the local health agency, which sends a nurse and health inspector to the child's home to search for the origin of the contamination. Once identified, the lead hazard is removed and follow-up testing is conducted to make sure the child's blood-lead level is falling.
Estimates peg the figure of reacting and scrutinizing each case at between $900 to $1,200, according to Henry.
A child can come in contact with lead through a variety of means, but the most common is lead-based paint.
New Jersey's aging housing stock makes children in certain areas particularly vulnerable to regular lead exposure.
“Mainly you’re going to find it in these older communities — Newark, Patterson — these older urban centers," said Nina Arce, spokeswoman for the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey.
Congress outlawed the usage of lead-based paint in most homes and buildings in 1978, meaning that homes built before then could contain the lead dust or paint chips that children sometimes ingest to their own detriment.
So can this shortfall be fixed?
State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, a primary sponsor of the Senate bill, said that the money would find its way to the program through the upcoming state budget process.
"The governor signed it, so it appears he's in favor of it," Vitale told the Asbury Park Press. "So we'll have to wait and see what he does in his budget proposal. If it's not in there, then we (the Senate) will put ($10 million) in a budget resolution."
"It’s safe to say it will be among the priorities" for New Jersey Assembly Democrats, said Tom Hester, spokesman for the caucus.
The Governor's Office said Christie won't be talking publicly about the budget until he makes his annual budget speech later this month.
Lawmakers may sound confident, but the state's track record of fully funding lead protection programs is far from immaculate.
The Press in 2015 reported on the regular raiding of millions of dollars from the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund to pay for routine state bills and salaries.
The LHACF program offers up to $20,000 in grants and loans for homeowners and landlords to remove lead-based paint from their walls. However, about $50 million was diverted from the fund, which was supported by a tax on paint, since its inception in 2004.