New Jersey Finds Problems with Lead Poisoning Prevention Efforts

A yearlong investigation by the New Jersey Public Advocate’s Office has found numerous problems with the way the state screens, remediates and follows-up on lead poisoning cases.

The report found lead paint remains a serious danger in the state, especially for the youngest and poorest residents of urban areas with old housing — even in cases where a home has already undergone lead remediation.

“The systems designed to address and prevent childhood lead poisoning are, at best, fragmented and inadequate and, at worst, ripe for negligence and fraud,” the report reads.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed an executive order strengthening lead poison prevention measures.

Corzine, who called it “a very serious problem which ends up affecting other areas,” was joined by several New Jersey families whose children have suffered from lead poisoning.

Ruth Hutchison, a mother of seven from Riverton, described a nightmarish year of multiple forced relocations after two different apartments she lived in had unsafe lead levels.

Hutchison said she was given 24-hours to vacate one apartment after health officials found her four-year-old son had lead poisoning. She spent nearly a year trying to navigate a bureaucracy designed to help lead victims, but one she said left her languishing in motels for months at a time.

“This is something I’ve never been through in my life,” she said. “I never knew anything about this until I went to the doctor and they made a commotion.”

Exposure to lead can cause everything from behavioral problems and hyperactivity to developmental delays and brain damage. A child can develop elevated lead levels by ingesting paint chips, inhaling lead paint dust or even from licking or chewing on lead painted toys or jewelry, health officials said.

New Jersey’s rate of lead poisoning is above the national average and one of the highest in the Northeast, according to the report.

Public health officials said the problem is especially serious in urban areas with dilapidated housing, but that any structure built before 1978 — the year lead paint was banned — can pose a risk.

“The biggest way that suburban kids can get poisoned is if the family decides to undertake a renovation,” said Jean Reilly of the Public Advocate’s Office, who lead the field investigations for the study. “Any point you disturb that paint, kids can get exposed.”

More than half of New Jersey’s housing was built before 1978. The report says that’s why the problem is especially prevalent in urban areas with older buildings.

The study concentrated on five New Jersey cities that accounted for more than 30 percent of the state’s lead poisoning cases in 2005: Trenton, Camden, Newark, East Orange and Irvington. It also cited Paterson as having one of the highest rates of lead poisoning among children — with 5 percent of those tested showing symptoms.

It found that New Jersey’s lead poisoning policies _ like most states _ are too focused on dealing with lead problems after a poisoning occurs, instead of concentrating on prevention and education.

The state’s failure to enforce lead paint regulations has contributed not only to human suffering, but to higher health and education costs in dealing with lead poisoning’s long-term affects, the study found.

It cited cases where children were returned to homes that had been certified as lead-free but were still exposed to dangerously toxic levels. In some cases, children’s blood lead levels measured higher after a home underwent remediation.

In other cases, the same companies hired to make an apartment lead-free were also charged with inspecting and approving their own work.

“Abatement contractors get away with shoddy, inferior work because legal standards governing their performance are amorphous,” the report stated.

The report recommended lowering New Jersey’s acceptable lead level thresholds and banning the practice of allowing the same company to be in charge of lead paint inspections as was in charge of removal. It advocates for improved housing assistance and temporary relocation programs for families whose homes are undergoing lead remediation, and said lead poisoning education programs should be expanded.