JERSEY CITY, NJ – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) today announced he has introduced legislation with U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to ensure safe, affordable housing by reducing the threat of lead exposure and lead poisoning of children in federally assisted housing. More than 3,000 children each year in the Garden State are diagnosed with lead poisoning from exposure to lead paint and other sources in the home, according to data compiled by the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH).

“No child should have to grow up in a home where simply breathing could hurt them,” said Sen. Menendez. “We can’t sit idly by while millions of children in this country are suffering from the health effects of lead poisoning, and thousands more may be vulnerable to exposure. This bill makes certain that our nation’s affordable housing has the highest lead standards to limit exposure and keep families safe.”

The Lead-Safe Housing for Kids Act of 2016 requires the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to align its definition of lead poisoning with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) blood level reference value, a standard reflecting the best available science, to protect children living in federally assisted housing. Additionally, to prevent lead exposure and poisoning, the bill requires new risk assessments be conducted for low-income housing constructed prior to 1978 before a family with a child under six years of age moves in.

The senator unveiled his legislation at a news conference in the courtyard of the Booker T. Washington Apartments, federally-funded public housing in Jersey City.

"I would like to commend Senator Menendez for taking action on this important issue to safeguard children against the harms posed by lead exposure," said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. "In Jersey City, we have been aggressive with our outreach on lead, hiring additional staff and increasing by more than 3,000 the number of children tested. This legislation will serve as another method of defense to ensure that young people are safe in their homes and that federally-funded public housing is not overlooked."

Under current HUD regulations, intervention in homes is not required until a child’s blood lead level is 20 micrograms per deciliter or 15-19 micrograms per deciliter in two tests taken over three months; this is three to four times higher than the current blood level reference value of five micrograms per deciliter set by the CDC in 2012. The CDC states that a blood lead level of five micrograms of lead per deciliter is particularly dangerous in young children under six.

"We have a responsibility to protect children from lead poisoning, which is an entirely preventable, but incurable condition," said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. "When thousands of NJ’s most vulnerable children are still being poisoned by this known toxin, we can and we must do better. We thank Senator Menendez and his colleagues for their leadership on this issue. All states should adopt the national standards set by the Centers for Disease Control, which will give more parents and families opportunities to get the treatment and resources they need.”

According to the latest NJDOH data released in 2014, there are more young children exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their homes in eleven municipalities and two counties in New Jersey than in all of Flint, Mich., as a result of contaminated drinking water. That includes 5,185 children statewide reported with blood lead levels higher than the CDC’s standard, and below the HUD required level.

“Thousands of New Jersey's children, primarily in low-income and minority neighborhoods, are poisoned by lead every year. And tragically it is often the paint and dust in their homes, the place they should be safest, that is poisoning them,” Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action said. “Access to safe housing is a civil rights issue. New Jersey should and can do better than this. Fully funding lead poisoning prevention and abatement programs is absolutely necessary.”

The CDC reports that at least four million U.S. households have children that are being exposed to high levels of lead, and there are a 500,000 children under six nationwide with blood lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter, the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

“Far too many children are lead poisoned in this country in both federally-assisted and non-assisted housing. We commend Senators Menendez and Durbin for introducing legislation to provide many of America’s most vulnerable children urgently needed protections from lead poisoning,” said Dr. David E. Jacobs, chief scientist for the National Center for Healthy Housing.

Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body, but it often goes unrecognized as it can occur with no obvious symptoms. Children and pregnant women are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage, and even death.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Require HUD to align its definition of lead poisoning with the CDC’s blood level reference value or the most current CDC lead poisoning prevention definitions and guidance
  • Require EPA and HUD to update outdated lead-contaminated dust and lead-contaminated soil standards, used to identify lead hazards, to conform with the prevailing science
  • Require HUD to issue new rules requiring an initial risk assessment for low-income housing constructed prior to 1978 for lead-based hazards prior to a family with a child under six years of age moving in; and clarify that a visual inspection is insufficient for an initial risk assessment
  • Removes the lead inspection exemption for zero-bedroom dwelling units (studio apartments) that will be occupied by a family with a child under the age of six
  • Require HUD to issue rules that would allow families to relocate on an emergency basis, without penalty or the loss of assistance, if a lead hazard is identified in the home and a child is found to have an elevated blood lead level
  • Require a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress analyzing the current processes for identifying and remediating lead hazards in federally assisted housing, and evaluating ways to improve the coordination and leveraging of public and private partnerships to increase prevention interventions to reduce lead exposure among children
  • Authorizes appropriations as necessary to carry out the requirements of the law for five years.

Sen. Menendez’s bill is supported by the following organizations: National Center for Healthy Housing; Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey; Isles, Inc., the New Jersey-based community development and environmental organization; New Jersey Citizen Action; Green and Healthy Homes Initiative; the Health Justice Project; the National Low Income Housing Coalition; the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing;; Healthy Homes Collaborative; National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership; Coalition for Human Needs; Loyola University Chicago School of Law Civitas Child Law Center; the Erie Family Health Center; the Sargent Shriver National Center for Poverty Law; the Environmental Advocacy Clinic of Northwestern University School of Law; United Parents Against Lead; the Louisiana Roundtable for the Environment; A Community Voice; the Southern United Neighborhoods; Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Poverty & Race Research Action Council; National Housing Law Project; CLEARCorps USA; Urban Justice Center; and National Alliance of HUD Tenants.