I remember when I was with Senator Booker in November and you told me, “One of the best places to be a child on the planet Earth is Bergen County, New Jersey.” My two kids couldn’t agree more – and we have to keep it that way. That’s why we’re here today. Because we have to do everything we can to keep our water clean and safe to drink. Not only is that key to parents wanting to raise their families here, and businesses growing and staying here. But, in the greatest country in the world, there is simply no reason why parents should have to worry that there is lead in the drinking water in our schools.
Like most parents, when I first read the news out of Flint, Michigan back in 2014, I was heartbroken. Images of brown water pouring out of faucets with public officials turning a blind eye. I was not only devastated by the impact that the lead found in Flint’s water would have on countless children, but I simply couldn’t understand how this could happen in 21st Century America.
Fortunately, the water challenges facing us here in New Jersey are not the same as those in the Flint crisis. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real problems we have to deal with – and address today.
The corner stone to this building, Hackensack High School, was laid in 1916 – more than a hundred years ago. And that isn’t unusual in New Jersey.
When you have infrastructure that predates the phase out of lead pipes in the 1920s — or lead solder in the 1980s — there could very well be lead in the drinking water, whether that’s in the water fountains, in the halls, or the sinks in the lunch rooms.
Therein lies the problem – and what often delivers those headlines that can scare all of us.
Just two weeks ago the Record offered this headline: “Paterson teens’ investigation finds lead in water.” Last March, the Star-Ledger found elevated lead levels in Newark Schools’ drinking water. And then in May, there was this headline: “Elevated lead found in water in six of seven Bergenfield public schools.”
By August, New Jersey Future reported that at least 137 New Jersey public schools had tested positive for lead. And, in April, the Atlantic City Press found that thirteen of their twenty-six local districts that tested their water discovered elevated levels of lead.
Since 2000, according to the Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, more than 225,000 children in our state were reported to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. That’s simply not acceptable.
The science is clear. When children are exposed to lead, their development could be delayed, they face learning disabilities, and appetite and weight loss. In the worst cases, children could develop permanent damage to their kidneys and nervous systems. They could experience seizures, hearing loss, and vomiting. And the greatest risk is to brain development, with subtle and irreversible damage.
Schools are meant to be a safe space, yet we’re sending our children to quietly incur the wrath of lead in their drinking water.
One mom called me and said, “I don’t get it. How do we pay all of this money in taxes and in our water bills and then we get notices at home about lead in the water and alerts about E Coli— and the need to run and boil our water as if we are living in an undeveloped nation.” I couldn’t really argue with her.
Thankfully, like many schools in my district, Hackensack High School has taken concrete steps in their water testing. In 2016, when they found fountains with unacceptable lead levels, they immediately replaced them.
Unfortunately, not every school has been able to take the steps Hackensack has. Bills like Senator Booker’s and my own Lead-Free Schools Act, will make sure that our schools can protect our children.
I don’t want any parent, here in Bergen County, in the Fifth District, our state, or across the country to have to worry if the water their child drinks is choc full of lead.
“The Lead-Free Schools Act” will help give parents peace of mind about the lead water in our schools.
First, it will test our schools for lead in the drinking water at the roughly 90,000 schools across the country that still experience inconsistent testing and have unknown lead levels, including many here in Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, and Warren counties.
Second, my bill will require that school districts, via the state, report annually on a user-friendly website, that parents can easily access, on the status and outcome of lead water testing in their individual schools.
Third, the Lead-Free Schools Act creates a targeted pilot program – using existing resources – to improve drinking water infrastructure in schools with lead in their water.
With water fountains costing up to $1,500 before installation expenses, we know some schools simply can’t afford to replace them, including many in my District. And, frankly, here in the Fifth District, where we pay some of the highest taxes in the country, yet have historically gotten the fewest dollars back, it’s time we got a better return on investment.
Like so many local issues, this just isn’t partisan. It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a Fifth District issue. It’s an American issue. It’s a mom and dad issue. It’s an American issue. Many of my Republican friends in Congress care about it, too, like my fellow freshman, Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania, who has co-sponsored the Lead-Free Schools Act.
Add that to the steps Senator Booker is taking and we will ensure that the water our children are drinking is clean and lead-free.
We live in the greatest country in the world. This is a problem we can solve working together and help all of our parents know that their kids are safe.
Thank you, God bless you, and now let’s get this done.