NEWARK, NJ - When Shakima Thomas found out her West Ward home had elevated lead levels in 2018, she wasn’t initially concerned for her 5-year-old son, Bryce.
"I thought that there was a safe level because the city gave me that impression," she said, adding that an initial test earlier that year showed her home was under the federally allowable standard.
Thomas got her home tested twice from the city and once privately. Each time her home's lead readings increased. Eventually, she began to do research about the effects of lead and grew concerned enough to get her son screened at the city's health department.
The threshold for a child to be considered to have elevated lead levels is five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, although there is no safe level. The lead levels in Bryce's blood tested four micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, Thomas said.
"I was devastated," said Thomas. "The fact that he had lead coming up in his system, it was just a concern. Even if it was a one, I would've been concerned because I didn't know."
It’s been more than two years since city-wide test results found a spike in lead levels for Newark’s water. The issue was caused when the chemical the city was treating its water with became ineffective at preventing lead from corroding off of aging service lines.
The city began to take steps to reduce lead in the years that followed, and for the first time, local officials said they expect lead levels to drop within the next six months. The water is starting to be treated with a new corrosion control inhibitor and the city’s 15,000 lead service lines are starting to be replaced at a reduced cost to residents.
But the effects of lead - especially on children - will remain.
While the federal Environmental Protection Agency allows for 15 parts per billion of lead to be present in water, the Center for Disease Control says there is no safe level. Elevated lead levels in children can lead to behavioral and brain development issues.
Experts TAPinto Newark spoke to said there needs to be a push not only in Newark - but around the nation - to be more proactive about eliminating lead, not remediating after its harmful effects have already impacted children.
But, they say, there is still hope for kids who get elevated lead levels in their blood, and it comes in the form of supportive educational services.
THE IMPACTS ON CHILDREN
Blood tests for lead are just a snapshot of what the child has recently been exposed to, explained Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who exposed lead levels in Flint, Michigan. Even if a child has less than five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, they should still be monitored.
“There’s a short window of detection for lead in blood,” Hanna-Attisha said, adding that blood tests usually pick up what a child has been exposed to over the last 28 days.
That’s why children in New Jersey are required to be tested once at 12 months and again at 24 months. Children that young are most at risk for ingesting lead through chips of paint or soil since they crawl and put their hands in their mouths, experts said.
Hanna-Attisha said baby formula mixed with contaminated water can also expose children to lead. She stressed the importance of using water filters - and using replacement cartridges - for expecting moms too.
The city began to distribute water filters in December 2018.
Hanna-Attisha, who also helped create the Pediatric Public Health Initiative in Michigan, said the negative effects of lead can impact a child even if they test below five micrograms.
“Most children fall below that,” Hanna-Attisha said. “But there’s still no safe level of lead.”
Still, some children who have elevated lead levels may be asymptomatic or show none of the behavioral signs of lead exposure. Outcomes of children can be affected by socioeconomic factors and educational services, Hanna-Attisha said.
“A blood lead level does not predict outcomes,” she added.
Newark Department of Health and Community Wellness Director Dr. Mark Wade explained that the city provides free lead screenings for children 17 years and under.
“Parents/guardians can bring their child to the Lead Clinic located at 110 William Street from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Friday,” Wade wrote in an email, adding that blood is taken with a finger stick sample. "If that sample is elevated, a second blood sample will be drawn from a vein (venous sample) and sent to the lab for confirmation.”
If the second blood test is elevated, a nurse case manager from the city will be assigned to the child. The case manager will also come to the child’s home with a lead inspector to test the home for lead hazards, Wade said.
NEWARK’S STORIED PAST WITH LEAD
The federal Lead and Copper Rule was implemented in 1991. Tests during the subsequent two years showed that homes receiving water from both of Newark's water systems - the Pequannock and Wanaque treatment plants - had high lead levels, according to a study commissioned by the city in the wake of the most recent lead spike.
“Lead has been an issue in Newark for a long time,” said Peter Chen, policy counsel for the nonprofit group Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “One of the challenges of lead is that it’s baked in the infrastructure. It’s in the house. It’s in the water. It’s in the soil.”
The city began to implement different corrosion control chemicals at its treatment plants and lead levels decreased between 1998 and 2015, according to the city's study. Then, 30 Newark public school buildings in 2016 recorded elevated lead levels in the water.
State Department of Health records show elevated blood lead levels in children younger than six-years-old dropped from 2015 to 2016. There were 786 children younger than six years old in 2015 with elevated blood lead levels, compared to 671 in 2016.
But that number increased in 2017 to 709, the latest year data is available. (The city health department said annualized results are not yet available for 2018 and 2019.)
Chen, of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said it is hard to correlate any lead spikes in children to the water directly. There is, however, some niche research that has begun to try to find the source of lead exposure with isotypes, he said.
“Because we don’t know what the testing results of the schools before that point, it’s pretty hard,” Chen said, adding there was no reported citywide testing in 2016 and it wasn’t completed in schools on an annual basis either.
State law that was implemented in 2016 requires schools to be tested every six years. Citywide testing wasn't completed in 2016 because federal regulations only called for triennial reports. It wasn’t until 2016 that the state Department of Environmental Protection began to require more frequent sampling for larger municipalities, a spokesman for the agency said.
Lead exposure doesn't only come from water. Newark has also grappled with overexposure from lead paint since many of its homes were built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned. The city was also home to many paint manufacturers too.
HOW DOES NEWARK MOVE ON?
City and state officials are still fighting a lawsuit that was filed in 2018 by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The lawsuit is headed into mediation, which could mean an early resolution to the case.
Thomas, who once ran for city council, said she would have a hard time trusting any information she receives from city officials even if lead levels decrease. The city had initially told residents the water was "absolutely safe to drink" in April 2018, about six months before water filters were distributed to residents.
“I really think the City of Newark dropped the ball on this water crisis," Thomas said, adding that she's become a member of the Newark Water Coalition. The grassroots group has held community meetings to address residents' concerns about the issue. "They really did a bad job."
Hanna-Attisha has seen the crisis in Flint almost come full circle now. She has traveled to multiple municipalities to speak about lead in water, which is an issue afflicting the entire nation.
She will now be coming to Newark on Wednesday at St. Stephen’s Church at 6:30 p.m.
The pediatrician said rebuilding trust takes a long-term commitment to transparency from leaders. At times, the mistrust that is felt now could bolster better accountability in the future.
“We should all have active roles in asking questions, being curious, asking for more information,” she said. “The story of Flint is very much a story of what happens when people do play a role in these decisions and finding out what happens and not accepting the status quo.”
The pediatrician also worked to create an online registry of Flint residents who were exposed to lead-contaminated water. It helps connect them to programs designed to minimize the effects of lead.
Chen suggested the city should specify lead inspections whenever there is tenant turnover in rental housing. The city is currently working on an ordinance that would require apartment inspections before a unit is rented out to a new tenant.
Both Chen and Hanna-Attisha, however, said the best way to combat elevated lead levels in children is to find it and remediate it before it ever becomes an issue.
“Follow the practice of primary prevention,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Make sure a population is never exposed to lead.”