NEWARK, NJ - A coalition of groups advocating on issues ranging from healthcare, education, and infrastructure gathered in Newark to discuss how to make the city a healthier place, especially for its children.

Believe in a Healthy Newark, an initiative founded four years ago to focus on improving health outcomes for Newark residents, especially those living in the South and West wards, hosted a conference on Thursday at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The dual focus of the event was on the long-term effect of adverse childhood experiences as well as the particularly timely issue of lead poisoning in the midst of Newark's lead water contamination crisis.

"Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades," said Arturo Brito, executive director of the Nicholson Foundation. "Adverse childhood experiences can hurt our work environment later on in life."

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Adverse childhood experiences can include psychological, physical, and sexual abuse as well as exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, violence, and parental incarceration. More recent research has expanded the understanding of childhood adversity to include the role that community environments and systemic factors, such as chronic poverty and racism, play in determining a child's risk of exposure to adverse childhood experiences.

Extended exposure to these experiences can greatly increase the chances of suffering from alcoholism and lung disease as an adult, having childhood learning difficulties or becoming a juvenile criminal offender. 

However, participants in the conference emphasized that those exposed to adverse childhood experiences are neither destined to have serious problems nor doomed to suffer. Instead, prevention and solutions are possible.

"I don't know if you can come up with solutions if you don't know that you have a problem," said Catherine Wilson, president & CEO of the United Way of Greater Newark. "We have to inform people about these problems, and that it affects everybody across all income levels and races. The solutions have to be community driven, whether it's addressing poverty, child abuse or the environmental factors around lead."

The lead water crisis in Newark was another obvious topic of discussion in light of the city's ongoing infrastructure and public health problems. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified, and low-level lead exposures in both children and developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lead exposure can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and infertility in both men and women. 

In general, lead affects children more than it does adults. Children tend to show signs of severe lead toxicity at lower levels than adults. Pregnant women and young children are most at risk for lead exposure. Exposure to high levels of lead before and during pregnancy can cause premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage, and problems with the development of a baby’s brain and nervous system, among other issues.

Peter Chen, policy counsel at Advocates for Children of New Jersey, noted the importance of seeking solutions for Newark's lead water crisis as part of making the city a healthier place to live.

"The built environment, whether it's the neighborhood streetscape, housing, environmental pollutants or toxic substances, play some role in the kinds of experiences that children and families have. Exposure to lead is definitely a risk factor in a wide range of neurological and developmental outcomes down the road," said Chen. "We're talking about trying to create protective factors that keep kids safe in the long term. Meanwhile, we need to make sure that we're getting the lead out of our infrastructure, whether its our water, our homes, or our soil."