TRENTON – Democratic legislators led by Senate President Steve Sweeney joined with a broad coalition of education officials and advocates in pressing for a plan that would have all New Jersey schools test their drinking water for lead contamination and have them inform parents of the results and act to eliminate the risk during a forum discussion today.
Joining Senator Sweeney in the roundtable discussion were Senator Ronald L. Rice, Senator M. Teresa Ruiz and Senator Joe Vitale and representatives from the New Jersey School Boards Association, the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the state Parent Teachers Association, the Association of School Administrators, the NJEA, the AFT, the president of the Trenton school board and the Principals & Supervisors Association.
“I firmly believe that we must take proactive steps to make sure lead contamination in water is addressed,” said Senator Sweeney. “The fact of the matter is that it is the government’s job to protect our residents and especially children, and lead poisoning is a serious threat. We can’t allow school children to be exposed to lead contamination; if the threat exists it must be removed and parents deserve to be informed.”
Senator Sweeney, Senator Ruiz and Senator Rice are sponsors of the legislation requiring every school to immediately test the drinking water in the school for the presence of lead and then test at least twice annually.
The Christie Administration is resisting the effort.
“Lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain and nervous system damage and a lifetime of behavioral and learning problems, all with no obvious symptoms,” said Senator Ruiz, the chair of the Senate Education Committee who participated via conference call. “But lead poisoning is completely preventable. For that reason, it is critical that we take action to identify where the problem exists and understand the scope of the threat. Nothing is more important than the safety of our children and there is no price-tag that can be placed on their health and wellbeing.”
The tests would be conducted in accordance with guidelines provided by the Department of Environmental Protection in conjunction with the Department of Education. Each school would be required to provide a copy of the test results to the commissioners of both departments, make them available to the public and notify parents and guardians of the test results.
If the tests detect a level of lead in the drinking water above the “action level” or concentration established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the public school would be required to take immediate steps to provide an alternate drinking water supply or to use filters to reduce or remove the lead contamination.
The bill would require the superintendent of each school district to identify each school building that contains lead pipes, lead solder, or fixtures containing lead, and provide a list of the identified buildings to the DOE commissioner. The measure would require the school district to install a water filter or water treatment device certified to remove lead on each drinking water fountain and each sink used for food preparation in the identified buildings. The school district would also be required to maintain and replace those filters in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
The legislation would appropriate up to $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund to reimburse school districts for the water filters.
The first test would be conducted within 30 days prior to the start of the school year, and the second test conducted six months later. The bill would allocate $3 million to the Department of Education to reimburse the school districts for the testing and $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund to reimburse schools for water filters.
“This is a public health crisis that cannot and should not be ignored any longer,” said Senator Rice. “The danger is especially severe in urban communities with older school buildings and a student population that is often underserved. The health and safety of every child is important and must be respected.”
Senator Rice has forcefully advocated for statewide actions to eliminate the ongoing threat of lead paint in homes, pushing the Christie Administration to fund the state’s lead paint abatement program. Just recently, Senator Rice prevailed when the governor agreed to restore $10 million for the effort.
Recent revelations show that nearly half of Newark’s public schools have elevated levels of lead in their water and that knowledge of the conditions was not publicly disclosed. Currently, there is no requirement that New Jersey schools test the water used for consumption by children or others for lead contamination. A few school districts have recently started to test.
“Lead contamination poses a serious health threat to children and can cause permanent problems,” said Senator Joe Vitale, the chairman of the Senate Health Committee who participated via conference call. “It acts like a poison that can leave its victims with neurological impairments for life. But it is preventable if the threat is removed.”
Senator Vitale, along with Senator Rice, are sponsoring separate legislation that would require New Jersey to adopt the federal standards for lead levels in children’s blood. The Center for Disease Control reduced the acceptable level but New Jersey has not followed suit.
In 2015, there were more than 3,000 new cases of children under six with elevated levels of toxic lead reported in New Jersey. Since 2000, about 225,000 children in the state have been afflicted by lead, according to advocates.
A recent report showed that 11 cities and two counties in New Jersey have a higher proportion of children affected by lead than in Flint, Michigan. A higher percentage of children were found with elevated blood lead levels in Irvington, East Orange, Trenton, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Atlantic City, East Brunswick and Passaic, and in Salem and Cumberland counties.
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