Newark lead crisis is a wakeup call | Editorial

Posted Aug 18, 2019

Tens of thousands of homes in Newark have been told to drink only bottled water, thanks to a high level of lead from the tap. The concerns date back years, and there’s no end in sight.

Elderly people have to stand in long lines to pick up a 30-pound pack of bottled water from the city, and haul it home. Pregnant women –including the mayor’s wife – don’t know if their babies are safe.

All because it’s not clear whether the 38,000 free water filters handed out by the city, with the blessing of federal regulators, are working properly. If further tests prove they aren’t, it will require an emergency response this city can ill afford.

It’s inspired comparisons to Flint, a city that deliberately changed its water source and treatment because it was cheaper, then covered it up, leading to indictments of officials.

But we don’t yet know exactly what happened in Newark. Here, it appears the water treatment was inadvertently changed in a way that allowed lead to leach in. We have lots of questions.

In the meantime, though, Newark is the siren for a largely silent crisis in New Jersey.

We’ve heard it argued that childhood lead poisoning is an “over-dramatized issue,” in the words of former Gov. Chris Christie. So we consulted the experts, and here are the facts.

Our state has made real progress, cutting the number of poisoned kids roughly in half over the last two decades. But as many as 1,000 were still being poisoned at last count in 2017. That number is even higher, more than 4,000, if you apply a new, stricter federal standard that New Jersey has since adopted.

No amount of lead is safe. On average, it knocks several points off a child’s I.Q. Severe cases are worse. But the primary culprit is still lead paint, not water.

Homes fall into disrepair, then a toddler crawls around and sticks his hands in his mouth. “That is the majority of lead that we see,” said Dr. Diane Calello, head of the New Jersey Poison Control Center, who has worked with affected children for a decade.

In 2017, Newark had more than 700 kids with blood lead levels over 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, where the feds now recommend action. That’s the most in the state. But when you consider population, other cities had a higher share – including East Orange, Irvington, Jersey City, Trenton and Plainfield.

This is their crisis, too. The core problem is that poor neighborhoods don’t have the resources to tear out all their old lead pipes or scrape off the lead paint.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says his city’s pipes have to be replaced at an estimated cost of $75 million. The state is already chipping in, and he’s asked President Trump for federal assistance.

Weigh that against the great leader’s compassion for cities that are mostly minority, and our decaying tunnel to Manhattan – a transportation time bomb he blew off in favor of 200 more miles of border wall – and you’ll have your likely answer.

Meanwhile, our state is running on broke. But at the end of the day, it’s a matter of priorities. This means, first and foremost, protecting what money there is for lead abatement.

A special tax on paints intended for this purpose generates $10 million a year, but for years, was diverted to the general fund. To his credit, Gov. Phil Murphy, unlike his predecessors, has maintained the funding. But how much of it has actually been spent?

We must also make lead a top issue, tackled through all kinds of regulations. One of many bills sitting in the Legislature would require homeowners to get a lead inspection before renting out to families. That’s the next place to push. The city of Newark has a similar ordinance, but advocates say it’s largely unenforced.

For those who believe that pediatric lead poisoning is a thing of the past: It shouldn’t take a crisis like Newark’s to remind us of the stakes.

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