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Pallone Testifies Before State Senate on High Rates of Children Affected by Lead Poisoning in NJ

February 29, 2016
Press Release

LONG BRANCH, NJ – Today, Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ-6), who serves as the top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, testified before the New Jersey Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens on the alarming rates of children affected by lead poisoning throughout the state.  Pallone discussed his recent efforts to get answers about federal funding New Jersey receives for lead poisoning prevention programs and take questions from the Committee’s Chair, Senator Joseph Vitale, and other members.

“The continuing problem of lead poisoning in our nation’s children is an example of our broader failure at all levels of government to invest in our infrastructure, and in public health and safety,” said Pallone.  “Budget cuts and austerity force hard choices between competing priorities—and sometimes result in choices that are unwise, unjust, and short-sighted.”

Pallone sent a letter to the New Jersey Department of Health earlier this month asking for more information on the federal funding the state receives to help detect dangerous levels of lead in communities throughout the state.  Pallone asked for information on exactly how these funds, meant to assist public health authorities in identifying high risk areas and implementing interventions as needed, are used in the state and if additional resources are needed to combat this serious public health challenge.

Pallone’s request for additional information on federal funding comes after Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) recently vetoed a bill that would have restored $10 million to the State’s lead remediation fund.

Pallone also discussed legislation he introduced today in Congress, the AQUA Act, which significantly increases water infrastructure funding authorization so local communities can repair and replace their aging water systems to ensure residents have access to clean and safe drinking water.

Congressman Pallone’s full remarks can be found below:

Statement of Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ-6)

New Jersey State Senate

Committee on Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens

February 29, 2016

Thank you, Senator Vitale, and members of the Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee, for inviting me here today to talk about this very important issue.

Lead poisoning is tragic because it is entirely preventable, and because it affects the most vulnerable among us—our children.  And what is especially concerning is that lead poisoning disproportionately burdens minority children and those from low-income communities.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause serious damage to the heart, kidneys, reproductive system, and brain.  But it is particularly dangerous for young children, whose brains and nervous systems are still developing.  Lead exposure in children has been linked to irreversible brain damage and a range of behavioral issues and developmental disabilities.

Despite the well-known hazards of lead, the issue has flown below the radar in recent years.  It took a tragedy of disastrous proportions in Flint, Michigan, to highlight the problem and bring this silent epidemic back into the national spotlight.

Congress banned lead pipes 30 years ago, but between 3.3 and 10 million older pipes remain in use throughout the country today.  Families living in homes connected to these pipes are potentially at risk from lead leaching from these aging pipelines into their plumbing. 

In addition to the dangers posed by our aging water infrastructure, some four million children in the United States still live in homes that have lead-based paint, although these paints were banned in 1978.  Young children living in these homes may breathe dust from the paint, ingest paint chips, or put their lead contaminated hands in their mouths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half a million U.S. children ages one to five have blood lead levels that exceed the agency’s guidelines of 5 micrograms per deciliter.  Last year here in New Jersey there were more than 3,000 new cases of children under the age of 6 with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

As deeply concerning as these statistics are, they understate the problem.  Studies show that even blood lead levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter result in behavioral problems and measureable deficits in attention and intelligence. 

The current scientific consensus holds that no amount of lead in the blood is safe for children.

So, why as a nation have we failed to solve this problem?

In my opinion, the continuing problem of lead poisoning in our nation’s children is an example of our broader failure at all levels of government to invest in our infrastructure, and in public health and safety.  Budget cuts and austerity force hard choices between competing priorities—and sometimes result in choices that are unwise, unjust, and short-sighted. 

There is no better example of this that the outrageous decisions that were made in Flint, Michigan—all to save money. The city manager’s decision to save money by changing the city’s water source to the Flint River, without treating the water appropriately with corrosion controls, has been devastating for the people of that city.

But Flint is not alone in making these short-sighted decisions. Here in New Jersey Governor’s Christie’s decision to veto S. 1279, which would have earmarked $10 million from the state budget for the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund, means that lead abatement projects will not be funded and families whose children have high levels of lead in their blood will be unable to relocate to safer environments.

We also share responsibility at the federal level as well.  In recent years, the CDC’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has seen its funding cut in half.  This important program provides funding for states to survey blood lead levels in children, in order to identify high risk areas and implement appropriate interventions wherever needs are identified. 

I have launched an investigation to better understand this program, and have asked the CDC to examine how states use this funding and how they report data to the agency. 

I’ve also sent letters to the health departments of seven states, including New Jersey, to better understand how they have used federal funds for lead poisoning prevention, how they collect and analyze blood lead levels in children, and what type of follow-up they conduct.  It’s important that we understand whether states are analyzing this data, and using it to design appropriate interventions like the program intended.

In the upcoming months, I will explore ways to improve this program, and examine whether additional federal authorities or resources are necessary to address this public health challenge.  Given the scientific consensus that no level of lead in the blood is safe for children, I believe this program may need to be expanded to ensure that states have robust surveillance capabilities.

We must also invest in modernizing our water infrastructure. Nobody should have to worry about whether or not their drinking water is safe and clean.  In Washington, I’m introducing the AQUA Act, which significantly increases water infrastructure funding authorization so local communities can repair and replace their aging water systems. This bill will help us ensure that everyone here in New Jersey and around the nation have access to safe and clean drinking water.   

Senator Vitale, I commend you and your committee for holding this hearing today as it demonstrates the need for a renewed focus to solve this problem.  We cannot let this silent epidemic continue to rob our children and their families of a chance for a brighter future.  I hope to bring renewed attention to this issue at the federal level, and I have faith that you will be doing the same here in New Jersey. 

Thank you.

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