TRENTON — New Jersey will test the water in its 3,000 schools for lead exposure beginning later this year and publicly release the findings, Gov. Chris Christie announced Monday, two months after results from 30 schools in Newark found lead levels as high as 35 times above the federal action limit.
The governor also announced the state will adopt stricter guidelines recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will trigger an investigation sooner when lead is detected in a child's blood.
The sweeping policy changes comes after months of criticism from public health advocates who have repeatedly called on Christie to take more aggressive action on lead, particularly in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Lawmakers have introduced legislation that would have accomplish both of the governor's new initiatives.
"We are continuing our commitment to addressing the dangers of elevated lead levels wherever they exist, using the highest testing standards available," Christie said during a Statehouse press conference.
$10M to remove lead threat from old homes
"At this point, we know the risk of lead contamination is not in our water sources, but in the aging pipes and support systems delivering water through fountains and faucets," he said.
Under the governor's new regulations, all public schools will also need to post and notify parents of their lead testing results, and provide them with a description of any steps the school is taking to ensure safe drinking water will be made available to students.
Christie called on the Legislature to appropriate $10 million to cover the costs of the new statewide school lead testing mandate, which will take effect at the start of the next school year this fall. Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R-Somerset) said he would introduce a budget resolution to add the money to the proposed state budget.
All school districts will be able to seek reimbursement for the costs of the new school testing mandate from the state.
Christie also embraced a 2012 recommendation by the CDC that said family notification, follow-up screening and other case management services are warranted if a child's blood test reveals at least 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood.
Twenty-nine states adopted the CDC's tougher recommendation, but until Monday, New Jersey was not one of them. New Jersey still relied on the old CDC recommendation that calls for monitoring at a reading of 10 micrograms.
The CDC has said no exposure to lead is safe. Lead exposure inflicts permanent brain damage in children that linked to attention deficit disorder, memory loss, a low IQ and behavioral problems.
Christie's announcements were met with praise and surprise.
"it's never too late to do the right thing," said Staci Berger, CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. "This is a step forward for our families and our most vulnerable children."
State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) a sponsor of a bill that would have required the state follow the CDC's recommendation of taking steps if a child's blood test reveals at least 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood, called the governor's decision "smart moves."
"All the data and evidence shows 5 percent should be the maximum, not the ceiling," Vitale said.
The crisis in Flint "was the tipping point for everyone to pay attention," Vitale said.
State Senn. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), also a sponsor of the lead bill, said he was "glad the governor did not wait for the legislation to reach his desk."
"However, we must continue the discussion about how to address our aging infrastructure, which is at the core of the lead-contamination problem," Rice said.
With much of its housing inventory built before lead-based pain was outlawed in 1978, New Jersey's children have been hard hit by lead, especially in cities. Under the state law that mandates testing for children under the age of 6, lead has been detected in 220,000 children since 2000, including about 3,000 in 2015.