Pregnant Women Offered Lead Test Kits — Friday, March 11, 2005


NEWARK — A state program unveiled Thursday by acting Gov. Richard J. Codey provides free kits for pregnant women to test older homes for lead, but local officials said it does little to help them remove it.

Saying that the kits would go "a long way in protecting children," against lead poisoning, Codey announced Thursday that the state would allot $1 million in funds for 30,000 expectant mothers in 18 municipalities, including Passaic and Paterson.

"We need to do all we can to give our children in our state a healthy start in life," Codey said at a press conference at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. "Lead poisoning is a very real threat, one that could lead to lifelong behavior problems and learning problems in our children."

Lead is a metal that can damage brain cells and cause retardation, attention deficit disorder, strokes and seizures. Children risk poisoning when they ingest lead paint or inhale paint dust from walls. Homes built before the early 1970s are especially dangerous, because paint contained lead then. Though the number of children with high levels of lead in their blood is decreasing in New Jersey, it remains a problem. In 2004, three percent of children statewide had elevated blood lead levels.

The kits, which will be distributed through prenatal centers, hospitals and clinics and via a toll-free hotline, will contain an instruction sheet, moist swabs, test tubes and stamped envelopes to send to a central lab. The lab will test the swabs at no cost, and return the results within two to three weeks. To be eligible, women must live in houses more than 25 years old.

Testing homes of pregnant women instead of relying on children as a barometer for the presence of lead is a good thing, said John Weber, who coordinates the lead protection program at New Jersey Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group. At present, 1- and 2-year olds in high risk areas are required to be tested for lead. If they have high lead levels in their blood, the home is inspected and the homeowner is required to rid the home of lead within two weeks.

"We're using kids as lead detectors," said Weber. "Rather than come into the home and look for lead when kids are poisoned, it's great to go in ahead of time."

Still, Weber, Paterson officials, and local health care professionals are concerned that the program doesn't provide enough of a plan for follow-up after a house is found to contain lead. Lead abatement can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $30,000, according to Paterson health officials. An owner might not be as motivated to remove the paint if a tenant, rather than a city official, was applying the pressure, said Santina Bruzzone , who supervises lead inspections in Paterson.

"It could take the owner a long time to abate," said Bruzzone. "By then, she might have had the baby."

Mercedes Lesesne, chair of Pediatrics at Barnert Hospital in Paterson, said she often she sees pregnant women living with relatives or other people she might not feel comfortable confronting about lead abatement. Also, Paterson's population is transient, and by the time a woman has a baby, she sometimes is living at a different address, Lesesne said

The effort to get out kits "sounds good on paper, whether it's going to decrease the incidences of elevated lead remains to be seen," she said. "If we enforce the programs that are already in place, we'd probably do better."

Besides Passaic and Paterson, the kits are available to pregnant women living in Bridgeton, Millville, Vineland, East Orange, Orange, Irvington, Newark, Trenton, Plainfield, New Brunswick, Montclair, Camden, Atlantic City, Elizabeth, Jersey City and Perth Amboy. Women who want the kits should call (888)722-2903.

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