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NJ COVID crisis caused deep decline in child toxic lead testing, state says


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State officials on Monday warned about another public health consequence begat by the COVID pandemic, and this one is disproportionately harming young children: a significant decrease in testing for the toxic metal lead.

The number of children tested for lead last year dropped about 35,000 — or 20% — from 2019, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Meanwhile the percentage of children who had lead levels that warrant intervention increased somewhat from about 2.2% in 2019 to 2.8% of children tested last year. 

In 2019, three children were hospitalized for lead above 45 micrograms per deciliter in their blood, but 11 were hospitalized last year, according to the Health Department. The government requires action when a child's tests show just 5 micrograms per deciliter in their blood, though no level of lead is safe.

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“This data seems to confirm that the pandemic is exacerbating New Jersey’s childhood lead poisoning epidemic, which continues to disproportionately impact lower-income children and children of color," said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. "New Jersey needs to create additional inspection tools and make deeper investments to address childhood lead paint poisoning so that every home is safe for every child.”

Lead is an invisible metal that can be found in paint and water pipes used in older homes. Children who consume lead-tainted paint chips and water even in small amounts can suffer permanent neurological and behavioral problems.

Before the pandemic eclipsed the attention of New Jersey's public health professionals, a lead water crisis that started in Newark brought the harm of the metal to the forefront.

And now, the pandemic has exposed just another hurdle to removing the threat of lead: keeping up testing — the sentry for possible future problems — when another public health crisis made it unsafe to leave home and limited medical appointments.

Testing children's blood for the dangerous toxic material is key to preventing lead's long-term damage, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Advocates and officials say the decline in testing comes at a time when more children are home, spending much more time in potentially toxic environments instead of at day care centers or their schools.

“It’s a serious concern, because child care centers are required to state that they’re free of lead hazards," said Peter Chen, policy counsel for Newark's Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "Schools have lead testing and are supposed to be free of lead hazards. Homes are not, and that’s where kids are spending most of their time."

New Jersey isn't the only state to see a testing decrease.

In a study of 34 states published in February, the CDC found that the number of children 6 and younger tested for lead between March and May of last year declined by over 50% compared with the same period in 2019. About 400,000 fewer children were tested in those states in the months after the COVID-19 emergency was declared in March, according to the study.

The concerning decline has the CDC and state health officials urging parents to schedule lead testing for their children. That will include a partnership with the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to encourage families to schedule missed doctors' visits and improve lead testing rates.

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"I just want to remind parents of young children to get in contact with their health care provider and resume checkups for their children, which includes lead screening and vital preventive care such as regular vaccinations,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said during a coronavirus briefing Monday.

Persichilli also sent a letter to health care providers urging them to proactively reach out to parents about missed appointments.

New Jersey law requires doctors and health care facilities that treat patients ages 6 and younger to do a blood lead test on all children, according to the Health Department. Tests should be done at age 1 and age 2. If a child has not been tested at those ages, at least one test should be performed before the child's 6th birthday, the department says.

Meanwhile, advocates, who have pushed the state to reform lead abatement protocols for years, said the COVID pandemic shows why urgent action is necessary.

"Thousands of families in New Jersey are forced to live in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, not the least of which is their exposure to lead dust from the deteriorating paint in their homes," said Ben Haygood, environmental health policy director for Isles, a Trenton-based community development organization. Haygood said the state has taken steps to remove lead paint from homes, but "much more is needed to protect children."

"We know how to make homes lead-safe before a family resides in any home or apartment, but instead we wait until a child is poisoned to test and mitigate the hazard," he said.

The decline in child lead testing is one of many side effects of the pandemic, which for more than a year has upended typical routines as it tallied more than 24,000 confirmed or probable fatalities in New Jersey.

Though the virus disproportionately harms elderly residents, its damage has not spared children. State officials have said there has also been a decrease in child immunizations, reduced reporting of suspected child abuse and a stark increase in online child exploitation since the pandemic took hold.

Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: sbarchenger@gannettnj.com 

Twitter: @sbarchenger