Finding High Lead Levels in Residents’ Blood After Hurricane Sandy

By Briana Vannozzi

“Especially the last two to three years we have seen a lot of lead spikes in the kids,” said Dr. Vijaya Desai, a pediatrician in Jersey City and volunteer for Partnership for a Healthier Jersey City.

In the 30 years Dr. Desai has practiced pediatrics, she’s never had so many cases of high lead levels in her patients’ blood.

“You know after Sandy, dust particles are airborne because of demolition. There was so much demolition going on, especially in Jersey City and Hudson County, we had so many buildings which were affected,” she said.

The rise of blood lead in Sandy affected areas has become a problem as cleanup and rebuilding continues around the state. That’s because housing and structures built prior to the mid 1970s are likely to still have lead paint.

“Anything that disturbs that lead paint — whether it’s construction or demolition or Superstorm Sandy — releases that lead paint. Paint gets into the dust and then children can get that lead into their bodies,” explained Dr. Phillip Landrigan, pediatrician and chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, N.Y.

Because that dust gets on toys, clothes and small fingers that end up in a child’s mouth. Lead poisoning affects the nervous system first, and fast — causing brain damage.

“These kids are irritable, not eating well, they are hyperactive and some of the kids who go to school are not performing well in the school,” Dr. Desai said.

Across New Jersey testing has shown more than 5,000 children a year have elevated blood lead levels, beyond the CDCP’s recommended reference point. And those living in urban communities are especially vulnerable because of the high number of older housing units and schools.

Jersey City started free public screenings for lead levels after Sandy, and recently received a $500,000 federal grant to expand. As part of that, they hosted a public forum on the topic today to spread the word.

When asked if safety measures were taken to ensure that exposure was at a minimum when demolition was taking place Jersey City Lead Inspector Charles Mays Jr. said, “I mean as far the construction code. That’s the construction official. They have measures and they have to go through a process of safety measures by law because that’s the law in Jersey and you know they don’t just haphazardly build a building or tear it down.”

“Any that have come to our attention where we’ve had children with lead problems, high lead levels, we’ve overseen the clean-up and the abatement of those properties,” said Jersey City Chief Health Inspector H. James Boor.

The state doesn’t keep a record of housing or rental properties containing lead paint. There was a law signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in 2008 to do such a thing, but the DCA says funding and resources were never made available to carry it out. In the continued aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, that debate may begin to resurface.