Lead screening and treatment requirements for New Jersey children are about to get tighter as the state establishes stricter guidelines to better care for those at risk.
New Jersey adopted the most up-to-date benchmark from the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to determine when and how a child should be treated for elevated levels of lead in their blood. Health experts said research now finds that even low levels can lead to developmental problems.
“Because lead poisoning often doesn’t come into view in terms of symptoms until later on, people don’t see it as critical and important,” said Merle Weitz, director of public health programs at the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative. “As these levels get lowered, people understand that no levels are safe.”
The CDC recommended in 2012 that additional care, treatment and intervention take place with children who test at elevated lead levels of 5 or more micrograms per deciliter of blood.
New Jersey previously had that benchmark at 10 micrograms, but Gov. Chris Christie signed into law earlier this month that state Department of Health regulations would adopt the lower level from the CDC, to catch exposure in children earlier on.
State officials said 630,000 children under the age of 6 are at risk of lead poisoning in New Jersey, but health records show fewer than half of children in many counties get screened for lead.
Afshana Anzum is a lead supervisor for Tahshin Construction LLC, one of the few state-certified lead abatement contractors in this area of South Jersey. Her biggest projects are often in older areas like Atlantic City.
She and her team go into homes and strip lead from floors, walls, window and door frames to make it safe for families, especially children. Anzum said children are not allowed anywhere near the area until all the dust is completely removed, eliminating the chance they could breathe in airborne lead particles.
Dr. Jazmine Harris, pediatrician and director of pediatrics at CompleteCare in Bridgeton and Glassboro, Gloucester County, said she and fellow doctors and nurses encourage lead testing to all their patients, especially children ages 1 to 5 who live in homes built before 1978.
Lead has been banned from house paint for nearly 40 years, but state reports show children are still at risk for poisoning by paint chips or inhaling dust leftover in homes today.
“Our patients who live in old rooms within those old homes are more likely exposed to lead,” Harris said. “Those who have higher levels could develop learning disabilities, have problems doing well in school and paying attention. We’re really observant in making sure we regularly order lead tests.”
Experts say minimal levels of lead in water account for a very small percentage of cases, but state education officials said last month that 21 school districts have reported elevated levels of lead in drinking water.
All schools have until July to complete lead testing as part of a state probe into water infrastructure.
Harris said the health care network works with the state Department of Health in reporting cases of elevated blood lead levels among children and getting families the right care. A phlebotomist usually takes about a teaspoon of blood from a child’s arm and results come back within a day, she said.
While it is rare to see a child with levels as high as 40 micrograms, Harris said, she typically sees patients with levels in the teens. According to the updated regulations, those levels warrant follow-up care such as identifying the source of the lead, getting rid of it and closely monitoring child’s health.
Weitz, who oversees programs at the perinatal cooperative’s sites in Atlantic City, Pennsauken and Camden, said the state as a whole has been proactive in lead education, home abatement programs, preventative testing and treatment for years, but public awareness has waned.
“Unfortunately, it takes things like Flint (Michigan water crisis), where lots of kids are victims, to bring it into the spotlight,” she said. “But we’ve seen lead levels in blood go down here, so I think we’re ahead of the game in prevention efforts.”
Christie announced in 2016 that the state would fund a $10 million pilot program to identify and remediate lead-based paint hazards in low- and moderate-income households, especially ones with children and pregnant women, in areas of need like towns and cities in Atlantic County.
State experts said the health department also spends about $15 million annually on blood lead level testing and lead removal in foster homes.
The state Department of Health launched its #kNOwLEAD public education campaign in October to increase awareness of all lead hazards for children and the risks of lead exposure in children.