Across New Jersey, an estimated 400,000 children spend part of their day in child care facilities. Although science confirms that exposure to even minor amounts of lead can permanently harm infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, the extent of lead contamination in these facilities is unknown. How well does New Jersey’s current regulatory system protect these children from lead in drinking water, what gaps exist, and what can we do to minimize that risk?
A new report issued by Jersey Water Works (JWW), “Lead in Drinking Water in Child Care Facilities: Ensuring the Future for New Jersey’s Children,” closely examines this issue at State-regulated child care facilities, providing 10 recommendations for consideration by state policy makers. As a natural follow-up to JWW’s broader study on the lead in drinking water problem issued in Oct. 2019, this report provides a blueprint for how to improve water testing, child care staff training, remediation, and outreach to parents, as well as a rationale for state assistance.
Child care facilities merit attention for several reasons. Many children up to age six, who are particularly vulnerable to the ravaging effects of lead, spend a significant amount of time in these facilities, many of which operate in older housing and rental properties served by lead service lines or indoor lead plumbing, the two main sources of lead in drinking water. Disproportionately, facilities with suspected lead in drinking water problems serve communities of color, resulting in equity and environmental justice concerns. Lastly, formula-fed infants are at a potentially high risk, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 60% of a child’s total lead exposure can be attributed to formula if it is mixed with lead-contaminated water.
Merely adding legislative or regulatory requirements will not get the job done. Many child care facilities operate on tight margins and lack the financial resources required to remediate lead problems. Unfunded mandates are unlikely to be successful in these instances.
Though cost is a factor, the full set of recommendations is not expensive, and some of the solutions are simply smart policy choices with little or no cost impact. For example, as water utilities replace lead service lines within the 10-year goal established in recently enacted state legislation (P.L. 2021, c.183), they should prioritize child care facilities as critical customers. Landlords who refuse a water utility’s offer to replace a lead service line should be required to provide their tenants with filters that are certified to remove lead.
The State clearly has a role to play, particularly in providing financial assistance to ensure swift implementation. Thankfully, this is the perfect time to act, as the state budget has an ample surplus, and the $6.2 billion in federal funds that New Jersey received through the American Rescue Plan serves as another potential funding source.
As borne out by numerous national studies (e.g., “10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure,”) the benefits from this investment will far exceed the costs. The reduced need for medical services and special education, as well as the impact on lifetime earnings for the children involved, will dwarf the cost of implementation. The best part is that, once accomplished, the problem of lead in drinking water will be permanently solved. (The risk of poisoning from lead paint will remain as a high-priority issue that must also be addressed.)
We owe it to our children and grandchildren to eliminate sources of lead exposure. Let’s get started.