How our environment is affecting our children & schools

By Bernard J. McMullan

It may seem unusual for a former Trenton Board of Education member to write about an environmental problem. But exposure to environmental hazards has severe negative consequences for children’s ability to learn and be successful. In particular, lead is a toxin that permanently reduces children’s cognitive abilities and increases the likelihood of misbehavior and violence. Medical studies show that children with elevated levels of lead in their blood risk the loss of 5 to 7 IQ points. A recent study of 4,800 children found that reading test scores drop one percentage point for every one point increase in blood lead levels. Studies show that at least one-third of incarcerated adults have elevated lead levels. Thus, those concerned about improving Trenton’s schools for all children must seriously consider environmental lead hazards.

The scary fact about lead is that it doesn’t take much exposure for significant negative consequences to occur. A chip of lead paint the size of a pea can affect a child’s ability to learn permanently and irreversibly. However, lead is not only found in pea-sized chunks. Children are exposed to it in dust on window sills and in sand and soil along city streets and sidewalks. It takes dust roughly equivalent to what fits in a sugar packet to damage a child.

In 2003, of the 2,720 Trenton children screened, 219 were found to have elevated levels (>10mg/Dl) of lead in their blood. In contrast, just 63 additional children in the rest of Mercer County were found with high lead levels in their blood. The number of children found each year with high levels of lead has not changed for the past five years. State statistics show Trenton tied with Newark (Behind East Orange and Irvington) as having the third highest rate of elevated levels of lead among its children. Statewide, elevated lead levels were detected in 5,320 children in 2003.

Available data tell just part of the story. In 2003, only 40 percent of children aged 1 and 2 in Trenton were tested. That means that testing of all children may reveal that 550 children with elevated lead levels begin school each year in Trenton. Each year, Trenton public schools enroll approximately 1,000 students in Kindergarten. So, at a minimum, one in five students has significant risk of impaired cognitive functioning; potentially – given the large number of untested children in Trenton – more than one half of Trenton’s kindergarteners may already be at risk as they enter school. This situation has been the same for decades and suggests that Trenton’s children enter school at a significant disadvantage – a disadvantage reflected in low test scores and high suspension and dropout rates.

Isles, Inc. has been studying this problem for several years. Instead of seeking increased screening levels, they are addressing the problem in a fundamental way – assessing Trenton homes before a child is poisoned. They tested 1,300 city homes and found that 60 percent had one or more contaminated dust samples. Most of these homes housed families with children under six years old.

The evidence of the risk and its consequences are real. It’s time for a coherent response.

What can we do as individuals?

  • If you live in a Trenton house or apartment built before 1978 and if there are children staying in your home, test areas where children are likely to come in contact with lead – window sills and the floors beneath windows. Do this test yourself using a commercially available kit available at hardware stores.
  • Regularly wipe down window sills and other areas with a damp cloth, rinsing the cloth in clean water often.
  • If you rent, ask your landlord for a copy of the required Disclosure of Information and Acknowledgement about Lead-Based Paint and/or Lead-Based Paint Hazards that certifies whether or not lead testing has been done. NJ regulations allow landlords to report that no testing has occurred, but ask your landlord if there is a reason no tests have been done.

What can we do as a community?

  • Test homes for hazardous lead levels before a child is poisoned
  • Insist on better housing code enforcement to ensure lead-safe housing. Houses and apartments should be tested by collecting and analyzing dust samples, minimally, at point of sale or rental turnover.
  • Ensure that every child in Trenton is tested by age 2. State law requires that every child be tested, but there is clearly massive noncompliance.
  • Continue testing throughout childhood. Require that every child be tested for lead poisoning upon entry into pre-school, Kindergarten, 4th and 8th grades. While the typical child is affected by lead before age three, the reality is lead poisoning, particularly in an environment where it is pervasive, can occur at any time.
  • Act decisively to remove lead threats for every child with elevated lead levels AND for their siblings. By law, local authorities must act to remove lead hazards if a child’s lead levels are excessive. But we must not tolerate a response limited to the most severe cases. Current standards for action (twice the CDC recommended level) potentially condemn many children to school failure, poverty, and worse. Best practices tell us the threshold should be less than 5ugl/dl
  • Use the information gained from screening immediately. Place children affected by lead in academic and social programs that identify and address cognitive impairment. We cannot wait until Kindergarten or even Pre-School.
  • Change the threshold levels requiring a housing inspection and remediation in NJ from 20 ugl/Dl, (or two persistent tests at 15) to 10 ugl/Dl as the CDC recommends. Insist that families receive education if EBLs are greater than 5ugl/Dl
  • Find ways to expand the work of community organizations like Isles in lead dust sampling in high risk areas. Use results to identify those parts of Trenton with lead risk concentrations and develop strategies for those areas.
  • Develop programs in every school designed to meet the learning needs of 20 to 50 percent of our student population who may be affected by exposure to lead. Do not allow the district to use findings of environmental effects on our students as an excuse for failure. Rather, we must apply all of the technology, knowledge, and best practices available to ensure that every child succeeds – whether affected by lead or not.
  • Work with city, county, state, and federal officials to eliminate the causes of lead poisoning. Any hopes that a new mayor, Brian Hughes, and Chris Christie have for Trenton, Mercer County and the state will not be realized until all children are raised in communities without fixable environmental conditions that limit those children’s capacity to learn.

We may be consumed about balancing state and city budgets, meeting the demands of many different constituencies, or a host of other issues. But if we do not solve this pernicious and continuing threat to our most vulnerable children, we may be wasting our time.

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