Mr. Chairman, I want to commend you for holding this important follow-up hearing on federal responses to lead-based paint poisoning. This is an issue of great concern to me and to my state, which is struggling to find the resources it needs to fund lead-paint abatement programs and ensure access to early detection of childhood lead poisoning.
This is a public health problem of enormous consequence for our cities, states, and our nation. At least one million children nationwide are victims of lead poisoning. These children have reduced IQ, hearing, growth, behavioral problems, and impaired nerve function. Many of them suffer from severe brain damage.
It is estimated that as many as two million homes in New Jersey that were built before 1978 contain toxic lead. Nine out of every ten houses in the City of Newark are tainted with the poison. Some estimates show that up to 50 percent of Newark’s children may be affected by lead-poisoning. Because screening efforts have been slow, only 4,000 children in the city have been identified as having elevated blood lead levels. As a rule, these children come from low-income minority households.
While lead-based paint poisoning is a very local problem, it is also a federal problem. States and localities are unable to bear the costs of lead abatement, which amount to about $15,000 per unit. Funding for the federal Lead-Based Paint Program must be dramatically increased if we are to adequately remove the paint that continues to plague millions of low-income homes in this country.
Despite the fact that eighty percent of children with elevated blood lead levels receive Medicaid assistance, a 1999 GAO report found that only 20 percent of children receiving Medicaid benefits had been screened for lead poisoning. This is a national disgrace. In 1989, Congress required that all children receiving Medicaid be screened for blood lead levels, however, enforcement of this law has been minimal. I am deeply troubled by recent comments made by CMS staff that this Administration finds the Medicaid childhood lead screening requirement overly burdensome and costly for states. Unfortunately, the learning disabilities and public health costs associated with lead poisoning are much greater.
We must not only ensure that children are screened early, but that they are screened through age 6. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid currently only requires that children be screened through age 2, despite the fact that lead poisoning poses a clear danger to children up to age 6. Additionally, children participating in the Head Start program should be screened for lead poisoning. While children who participate in the Head Start program are screened for many developmental disorders, they are not screened for the blood lead levels that so often cause these disabilities. Mr. Chairman, I know you have introduced legislation, which I have cosponsored, to make screenings available through the Head Start program. I hope to see passage of this bill in the near future.
The public health and societal costs of this problem are enormous. This Administration must affirm its commitment to enforcing lead disclosure laws, Medicaid screening laws, and lead abatement programs. I am pleased that the President has made ending lead-based paint poisoning in the next ten years a priority and I look forward to working with the Administration towards that end.