The national uproar over lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., has drawn renewed attention to a children’s health crisis that has plagued Pennsylvania and New Jersey for decades.
The states’ own data show that 18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint.
The reports, released in 2014, were recirculated this month by health advocates trying to draw attention to the lead problem.
“We’re not trying to take anything away from Flint,” said Elyse Pivnick, the director of environmental health for Isles Inc., a community-development organization in Trenton, N.J. “But, whoa, we have to tell the story of lead in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, too.”
Regional health officials, while expressing concern for children exposed to lead, insisted that the advocates were mismatching data and failing to recognize the progress that has been made.
The biggest source of lead remains chipping and flaking paint in old and unmaintained houses. Despite improvements in recent years, blood-lead levels remain high, especially among poor children.
Dr. Tom Vernon, a Philadelphia physician and former director of Colorado’s health department, agreed that lead is less of a problem these days because of measures such as removing it from gasoline and paint. “But that good news is offset by what we’re learning about the effects on school achievement and executive function at lower and lower levels of lead exposure,” he said.
No lead exposure for children is safe, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but a blood-lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter is the threshold that should trigger action.
In Pennsylvania, 13,000 children younger than 7 were known to have blood-lead levels higher than 5 in 2014, a decrease of nearly 7 percent from the previous year. In the New Jersey report, more than 5,400 children were similarly affected.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Lead Poisoning in Pa. and N.J. May Be Worse Than in Flint