In Newark, using children as lead detectors | Moran

By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on March 27, 2016

Dr. Steven Marcus, of the lead poisoning program at University Hospital in Newark, has been treating affected children since he was in medical school 50 years ago.

So what's his take on the news that water fountains in nearly half of Newark's schools were contaminated with lead.

First, he says, it's nowhere near as bad as Flint, Mich., where the lead content was more than 100 times the concentration of most offending fountains in Newark.

"No question," he says. "That was gross contamination, with water coming out of the tap colored."

Second, New Jersey is making progress, cutting the number of poisoned kids in half over the last 20 years. "We've done wonders," Marcus says.

So should we all chill out? Did the horrors in Flint turn the lead problem into the latest political hype?

Sadly, the answer is no. Not even close.

Marcus is approaching retirement in a few months with a broken heart. He's like a surgeon in a MASH unit who has saved more than his share of patients, but sees that the war is still raging. He can hear the next chopper coming in.

"This is a man-made epidemic," he says. "It's aggravating, frustrating, and unbelievably upsetting."

Marcus lived through the days when the treatment was so painful that preschool children had to be held down by several nurses while he injected them with chemicals that helped remove the lead from their bloodstreams. Things have gotten better.

But he says we haven't faced the core problem: The need to remove the lead that still saturates old homes and old water lines. The lead is everywhere, especially in old cities like Newark.

Last year in New Jersey, nearly 1,000 children were found to be poisoned. On average, Marcus says, they will lose 7 points off their IQ. Severe cases are much worse.

A recent study co-authored by Princeton University's Janet Currie found that a major clean up in Rhode Island helped narrow the racial achievement gap over the last decade.

"The decline in racial disparities in lead explains between 37% and 76% of the decline in racial disparities" the study found.

A nationwide clean up would be enormously expensive. Marcus and a colleague once tried to estimate it, but they quit in despair.

"It came to something like $10 trillion a year for the next 1,000 years," he says. "We looked at each other and said no way this is going to happen."

So we do triage. And what really bothers Marcus is our method: Clean ups are ordered only after children are poisoned.

We work backwards. Instead of protecting kids, we use them as lead detectors.

"If a kid is sick, we give them free lead abatement," says Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. "In order for us to clean every home over a certain age, we'd need an influx of resources. We'd need a Marshall Plan type of investment."

He understands that we can't afford that right now. But it bothers him, for good reason, that New Jersey is marching in the wrong direction.

A special tax on paints intended for this purpose generates $10 million a year. But for years, it has been diverted to the general fund.

Newark kids, it seems, have no seat at the table when these budgets are negotiated.

Marcus misses that money. It was used to clean homes in Newark, and to lodge families elsewhere while the work was done.

"We had a child in this hospital recently and we couldn't send him home," Marcus says. "That's the $10 million. That money is gone."

Democrats tried to restore the money, but Gov. Chris Christie stopped them with a veto.

Last week, his office bragged that his business tax cuts are worth $2.3 billion a year. It's a revealing set of priorities.

For now, Newark is hauling in crates of bottled water every day to the 30 affected schools, and offering free testing for any parent who wants it.

The teachers union is responding as it always does – by whipping up hysteria as a political weapon. Its leaders somehow blame charter schools for the problem, which is almost a nervous tic for them. They want Superintendent Chris Cerf to resign.

"I don't see any action," Abeigon says. "I guarantee if this happened in Summit...he would have been fired."

No action? Cerf shut off the water, notified the state, called the mayor, issued public notice, and had crates of bottled water shipped to the affected schools at 2 a.m. that night.

His reaction was swifter, stronger and more transparent than Newark saw when lead was discovered many times in past years.

Baraka is bringing a dose of needed sanity to all this, defending Cerf, and pressing for help from the state, which controls city schools.

"I know it will cost a lot of money," he says. "But ultimately, it has to be fixed. The pipes have to be changed."

Marcus, meanwhile, says that 18 kids were so severely poisoned last year that they had to be admitted to the hospital.

"That was significantly more than the year before," he says. "I feel totally defeated."

The question now is this: Will we wait another 50 years? Will we be content to cut the damage in half again over the next few decades?

For myself, I'll focus first on that missing $10 million. The budget deadline is June 30. One way or another, Newark kids need to be at the table this time around.

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