After a water scare, leading the fight on lead

Star Ledger Editorial Board

In the shadow of Flint, Mich., lead poisoning has finally become a galvanizing issue in New Jersey. 

Nearly 1,000 children were poisoned with lead last year alone in our state, at levels that will shave an average of 7 points off their IQs, and often cause behavioral problems as well. The very least we can do is try to prevent this from happening to more kids. Thankfully, state leaders have offered several promising proposals, including two bills now up for debate.

The first, sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Essex County lawmakers Teresa Ruiz and Ron Rice Sr., would require all school districts to immediately test for lead in their drinking water.

The second, to be introduced Monday by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, would raise money for lead cleanup through recycling deposits on bottle sales. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has expressed support for this, and also suggested a 5-cent tax on any plastic bag or bottle sold.

Start here: We obviously need to test every school, and Newark is ahead of the curve in that regard. The district, like Camden, is supplying bottled water in building with contaminated water. But many schools still aren't even testing, so their kids could be gulping down this poison even now. The first bill would provide $3 million for testing, and set aside $20 million to provide water filters.

But lead paint in homes is the bigger problem by far. Nearly 1 in 3 New Jersey homes were built when lead paint was common, and it would take billions to clean them all. 

But we have to start. Christie's budget would march the wrong way. He would again divert $10 million ntended for lead cleanups. He must be stopped this time.

Beyond that, schools will need help replacing piping and water fountains that contain lead. Huttle's idea is good, but probably not enough.

It allows people to turn in their plastic bottles to get a 10-cent deposit back, or offer that money for lead cleanup. New York takes in $15 million annually from a similar program. 

Aside from the lead crisis, it's worth noting that this could also help make New Jersey more environmentally friendly — because in addition to raiding the lead fund, Christie has raided tens of millions set aside to incentivize towns to recycle.

Say this for our governor: He sets the bar low. Christie has devoted zero dollars to controlling lead hazards in New Jersey. So no, we cannot do enough for these kids; but surely we can do better.