For many years, scientists have warned of the danger that lead in drinking water poses to young children, as even low level exposure can raise the likelihood of behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, and other serious health ailments. Infants may face highest levels of exposure, as formula mixed with tap water can account for up to 60% of their total lead-related risk. With an estimated 400,000 children attending day care in New Jersey, the state’s 4,000 licensed child care facilities (CCFs) pose a particular concern. So, when the State of New Jersey appropriated funding in 2021 to help CCFs recover from the pandemic, it seemed to be a golden opportunity to finally address the problem of lead exposure in children. Ironically, that logic may prove to be wrong.
Supported by a total of $59 million in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds ($54.5 million) and a Fiscal Year 2022 State Budget appropriation ($4.5 million), the NJ Economic Development Authority (EDA) organized a Child Care Facilities Improvement Program (CCFIP) in July 2021 to pilot full cost grants for facility improvements that will help ensure the future viability of this critical industry. Phase 1, which may absorb nearly half (i.e., $25 million) of the funds, launched on November 15, 2022, when EDA began accepting applications from licensed CCFs. (Registered family child care providers are not eligible for Phase 1 but will be in the future.)
Key program features include:
Since physical improvements sharpen competitiveness, they are likely to be very attractive to CCFs, many of which operate on a small profit margin and could not otherwise pursue such work. However, when combined with EDA’s plan to issue grants on a “first come, first served” basis, the CCFIP program is unlikely to have sufficient funds to significantly reduce the backlog of known environmental problems.
For the first time in state history, a full view of the extent of lead in drinking water exposure in CCFs will be available in 2024, when the Department of Children and Families (DCF) expects to unveil a statewide database reflecting comprehensive testing results. If the experience of other states is instructive, lead exceedances will be particularly significant in CCFs within disadvantaged communities, where older housing stock heavily laden with lead plumbing and paint predominantly serve communities of color. With a significant portion of state-regulated CCFs serving urban communities (e.g., Jersey City: 174 facilities or 4% of the statewide total), the potential risk is not evenly distributed across the state.
Though EDA wisely provides CCFs with considerable flexibility in defining their most important needs, environmental/health concerns should not be left to chance. Ironically, state assistance may succeed in providing children with modernized facilities without addressing the long-standing health issues that imperil their future.
Several potential solutions could be applied:
We have a rare opportunity to improve early childhood learning while permanently removing a threat to the health of young children. With a few tweaks, we can avoid the irony of coming up short.
For more information, see the online report issued in November 2021 by Jersey Water Works, “Lead in Drinking Water in Child Care Facilities: Ensuring the Future for New Jersey’s Children.”