Report on NJ Lead in Drinking Water Response Shows State Slow on Remediation; Legislators & Advocates Call for Bulked Up State Response for Both Testing, Remediation & Funding

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Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center

Trenton – Citing growing evidence of pervasive lead contamination in the state’s drinking water, legislators and advocates joined together to release a report by Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center documenting lead’s health impacts and calling for action for both testing and remediating lead from our drinking water and homes. The report documented the pro-active responses from other states for both testing and remediation to remove lead as a threat from drinking water, especially in the school environment.

“Testing for lead in our school’s drinking water should be the first step. But we need to look beyond testing and tackle remediation. We need to actually fix the source of lead in our schools and our homes by removing lead from our environment. We need to test for and remediate lead. We shouldn’t be playing lead roulette with the developing brains of our children in any city or town,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Legislators and advocates called for swift action to ensure lead-free water for New Jersey’s schools, daycares and homes and for protective measures to reduce lead levels in home environments.

“The results of this report and New Jersey’ C- minus grade in terms of keeping the lead out of school drinking water, comes as no surprise to those of us who have been working to mandate heightened testing and remediation for lead in New Jersey’s schools, homes and facilities. The sad truth is that the dire effects of lead poisoning are preventable, and as a state we must be more proactive and willing to commit resources to eradicating this problem. Passage of A3539, and similar legislation, would be a critical step in the right direction,” said Assemblywoman Liz Muoio (D-15).

As more New Jersey schools test their water, they are finding lead.  More than 800 school systems are required to complete testing by this July, and the Dept. of Education has reported 21 districts have already reported failing lead tests. School districts from Newark to Trenton to Cherry Hill to Saddle River have all reported failing lead tests.

“It’s unfortunate that it took a disaster in Flint, Michigan to shine a light on the problem of lead in our drinking water.  We must do more to protect our children and their growing minds from being contaminated. It is time we develop a long-term solution to get the lead out for the safety and future of New Jersey,” said Assembly Environment Committee Chairman Tim Eustace.

Lead in school drinking water is just the tip of the iceberg. Testing for lead in residential drinking water is spotty, as lead service lines are often hidden culprits. More than 225,000 New Jersey children have reported elevated levels of leads since 2000, with more than 3,500 in 2016 alone. One in three New Jersey homes was built before 1978, when lead was banned from paint, and the largest source of lead poisoning continues to be from paint in the home environment.

“Our elected officials and future leaders should support broad investment in lead poisoning detection and remediation to ensure our children grow up healthy and that all families have can live in a safe place they can afford to call home,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of NJ. “To Build a Thriving New Jersey, steady investments into programs like the Lead Hazard Prevention Fund allows us to create healthy homes and communities where our children can prosper.”

Yet the new report by Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center shows that such confirmed cases of lead-laced water are likely just the tip of the iceberg.  For example, the report cites new data from Massachusetts, where half of more than 40,000 tests conducted last year showed some level of lead in water from taps at school.

“This report shows that New Jersey has a crisis with lead in our drinking water and we need the Legislature to lead on the issue. Whether you live in a city, the suburbs, or rural areas, we need real action to fix this problem. Most importantly, we need a long-term approach that fixes the pipes in our street and our schools, gets lead out of homes, and cleans up contaminated sites,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We want to thank Senator Turner and Asw. Muoio for creating these bills. The Legislature needs to pass these bills so we can really get the lead out.”

All too often, schools and homes have pipes, plumbing and/or fixtures that leach lead into drinking water.   In some cases, old service lines – the pipes that brings water from the mains in the street into buildings – are made entirely of lead. 

Unfortunately, current state law does far too little to prevent children’s drinking water from becoming laced with lead at school or at home. Current legislation (S2082/A3539) to ensure a mandated regimen of testing for lead in school systems across the state has passed the Assembly, but hasn’t been heard in the Senate. In a testament to grassroots pressure, Gov. Christie announced the testing program last year and has included funding in this year’s budget, but testing is hardly codified. This testing lifted New Jersey’s ranking amongst 16 states to a C-.

“Until the unfortunate news about Flint’s drinking water tragedy last year, lead in water was an issue that few of us understood. The Governor did the right thing by calling for immediate water testing by our states’ school districts. This bill today makes school water testing a requirement into the future.  To best protect our children, we need systematic assessment and correction of all potential sources of lead in our states whether it be in our schools, our homes, or where our children play. This bill is an excellent start to reaching this long-term goal,” said Elyse Pivnick, Environment Health Director with Isles Inc.

The legislation has Sen. Turner as the prime Senate sponsor, Asw. Muoio and Asm. Gusciora as prime Assembly sponsors and Assembly Environment Chairman Eustace as a co-sponsor. The legislation’s key provisions require both testing for lead in the drinking water for all school systems, immediate shut-downs of water outlets that fails, notification of the public and transparent test results and required remediation.

 “The Healthy Schools Now coalition applauds Environment New Jersey for releasing their landmark ‘Get The Lead Out’ report. This groundbreaking report makes clear that the public health crisis of lead in water is not just a Flint issue; it’s a national and local issue with significant implications for our children here in New Jersey.  The common sense recommendations outlined in this report should be heeded by our political leaders. As stated in the report, proper analysis and aggressive remediation must be a part of legislative solutions. Bottom line, our students deserve to attend safe and healthy schools. This report shows how we can make that a reality,” said Jerell Blakeley, Healthy Schools Now campaign organizer with NJ Work Environment Council.