Mayor Baraka leads on battle against lead in schools

NEWARK, NJ — In his state of the city address on Tuesday, March 15, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka called for a long-term solution to fix the city’s problems with lead in their drinking water at 30 schools. The recent discovery of dangerous lead levels in Newark public schools’ drinking water threatens human health and Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said they support the mayor’s efforts.

“We want to thank the mayor on his work in trying to solve the problem of lead in drinking water in Newark’s schools. Mayor Baraka has proposed a long term fix eliminate lead in our schools and drinking water. This will protect children from lead exposure that causes brain damage and illness. The failure of the Christie administration and Newark’s school system to change filters and do proper maintenance shows that we need a permanent solution, not a Band Aid to make our kids safer,” said Tittel. “Our state desperately needs funding for lead abatement, including removal and replacement of old fountains, pipes, lead solder, stripping lead paint from schools and homes. We agree with Mayor Baraka’s plan to receive the funding source from deposits on plastic, glass and metal containers or from a tax on plastic bags. The Smart Container Act would provide the funding for a Healthy Schools and Community Lead Abatement Fund. It would also have other environmental benefits by encouraging recycling and reducing waste throughout the state.”

The Smart Container Act, A2281, would provide funding for necessary lead abatement programs after Newark has faced a public health crisis. It would also help reduce the amount of waste by encouraging recycling. The Act would create a $.10 deposit on cans and bottles. Consumers would get their money back when they return and recycle their bottles. Any funds that are unclaimed would go towards lead abatement across our state, including at public schools. This will also encourage recycling and take waste out of our waste stream, while also help protect Newark’s children from pollution at its incinerator. In addition, the plastic bag fee will encourage people to end the use of plastic bags at retail stores. This will help avoid plastic bags polluting our oceans, clogging storm drains, and harming our marine and aquatic environment.

“The mayor’s plan will tackle this serious health problem with a program that allows children to live in lead-free environment. It will also reduce waste, litter and pollution. We are glad to see this long-term proposal help the city’s lead problems and like the idea of its funding source. The Sierra Club has been working on a ‘Bottle Bill’ for years in the legislature because it will tremendously reduce waste. New Jersey recycles about 50 percent of our containers, but in other states that have a bottle bill they see more than 70 percent recycling rate. By putting these two programs together, it will put the funds received from container deposits to good use. Mayor Baraka has been a strong advocate for protecting Newark’s water and had opposed the MUA. We look forward to working with Baraka to fix this serious problem, before it becomes a crisis like Flint,” said Tittel.

The state Legislature has had hearings regarding lead in New Jersey’s drinking water. However, Gov. Chris Christie did the most damage when he vetoed a bill to increase funding for lead abatement programs. Without funding, the Christie administration has widely ignored the lead issue in Newark’s schools.

“It is very important that the mayor has come out with a plan to help eliminate lead in schools’ drinking water because the DEP has failed to act. The mayor is looking at a real solution that is long term to prevent lead in our drinking water. Since Christie vetoed the bill to for lead abatement, we still need the funding. In some places they found lead levels ten times what it should be. This has been going on for more than a year, but we don’t know if it is coming from pipes or from the water itself. We need to replace old pipes and aging infrastructure. There also needs to be an investigation to confirm the lead contamination is not spread throughout the city of Newark. Given what’s happened in Flint, we need immediate action to tackle Newark’s lead issues. Lead poisoning is a serious threat to human health, especially for children. We need to test at the faucet, expand testing to more areas, and update the standards for drinking water,” said Tittel. “Christie said lead wasn’t a problem when he vetoed a bill that would give $10 million to remove lead from children’s homes. Once again, the governor is wrong.”

“As the water becomes more polluted, chlorides are added to kill the bacteria. These chlorides can allow lead to leach into the water. This is a similar situation to the Flint River in Michigan. Water from the Newark Water Supply System could be so polluted that by treating the pollution, it’s actually increased the amount of lead in the water people drink,” said Tittel. “Another possible lead source could be the pipes themselves. New Jersey cities have old outdated pipes in our streets and homes which can mean even higher levels of lead in our water. Many of our water systems go back to the Victorian era and even homes built in the ‘30s and ‘40s have pipes made with lead solder.”

“Thousands of children are diagnosed with lead poisoning in New Jersey each year; over 3,000 in 2015 alone. New Jersey is using the Action Level of 15 (parts per billion) when it should be stricter: at least 5 ppb. This means it could be an even bigger problem. We need to lower the Action Level standard for the state to better protect our citizens, especially the children most at risk from lead poisoning,”said Tittel.

The DEP says they are in the process of reviewing last year’s data in order to put together “more complete picture of the remediation and filtration protocols the district used to address any previously recorded elevated lead levels in the water.”

“We want to applaud Mayor Baraka for leading on lead in Newark’s Schools. The Newark lead problem is becoming more and more like Flint: withholding information, denial and spin. Meanwhile children are drinking lead that shouldn’t be there DEP clearly hasn’t done its job, nor has Newark’s school system. They’re talking about doing a plan but a plan should have been in place years ago. They should have been doing this sort of testing that they plan to do now back when they first discovered the lead,” said Tittel. “We shouldn’t be balancing our budget on the backs of our children’s health. Just like in Flint, Mich., we have a governor who is more concerned with politics than protecting drinking water or the health of our children. That is why we need a Lead Abatement Fund to avoid possible public health nightmares.”