Many of those reading this newspaper grew up in a world filled with lead, a heavy gray metal that easily hides in chemical compounds.
Water pipes were often made of lead, as was the metal solder used to join nearly all pipes. Lead was added to gasoline starting in the 1920s to increase engine power. Lead-based paint was the standard for buildings and often used on furniture and children’s toys. Lead sinkers remain the most popular choice for fishing line weights.
Lead had long been known to be toxic at high levels, but starting in the mid-20th century, medical science became increasingly aware of its irreversible damage to nervous systems even at very low levels.
As the most densely populated state and one with an abundance of older housing, New Jersey’s lead risk was high. In response, the state took the lead on many initiatives to reduce lead exposure — a role it continues today with its recent commitment to aim for the latest very low federal standard of exposure.
In 1956, the N.J. Department of Health (and Senior Services, as it was then known) was one of the first in the nation to start testing children’s blood for lead.
In 1971, New Jersey was one of the first states to prohibit the use of lead paint on toys, furniture and dwellings — seven years before the federal national ban on the sale of lead paint.
That still left a lot of lead in the everyday environment. Lead wasn’t phased out of gasoline nationwide until the mid-1970s, and lead water pipes and lead solder weren’t banned until 1986.
Lead in water systems and paint isn’t visible, so exposure typically remains undiscovered until testing. Rowan University recently discovered high levels of lead in the water of nine residences on campus. It’s installing filters for drinking water while it analyzes the causes and develops a long-term solution.
The main risk of lead is from old paint, the source children are most likely to encounter.
Lead is most toxic to children 6 months to 6 years old because their nervous systems and organs are still developing. Their bodies absorb lead by touching the paint, inhaling its dust or ingesting its chips.
The state already had developed the N.J. Lead Poisoning Elimination Plan in 2010 in conjunction with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to increase screening and reduce the percentage of children testing above 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
In quick succession this year, the state shifted to a new CDC standard of half that level and announced an additional $20 million to help health departments and households find elevated lead in children and reduce exposure further.
The state has done a good job of quickly realizing the danger of lead, reducing exposure to it, finding children at risk and addressing their situations appropriately. Officials should consider banning lead fishing weights as well, as has been done by other states, nations and U.S National Parks.
Families needn’t wait for state screening or help. Simple and affordable lead testing kits are readily available, and home water filters get the lead out and leave water tastier (and cheaper than bottled water).
The reduction in lead exposure is one of society’s success stories. With the hard work done, a little more effort will leave the threat negligible.