Princeton resident, Elyse Pivnick, has an iron will, particularly when it comes to lead in the environment.
She has dedicated much of her life to protecting children from lead poisoning and advocating for services for children already suffering from the debilitating effects of lead poisoning.
As director of Environmental Health for the Center for Energy and Environmental Training at Isles, Inc. in Trenton, Ms. Pivnick is one of the authors of a just-published report getting national attention: When Home is the Most Dangerous Place: How a Community Development Organization (Isles) Learned to Get the Lead Out.
Reading the report published by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, had the effect of taking my mind off the political fireworks and July 4 barbecues taking place nationally and appreciate some real patriotic activity going on locally.
The subtitle of the report could be: “How did an urban planner from Princeton with no formal environmental science training become Trenton’s environmental science champion for creating safe, no-lead home environments?”
Ms. Pivnick for the past 26 years has worked for Isles, a community development and environmental organization, founded in 1981 with a mission to foster self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.
With an urban planning graduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a native of Detroit, Michigan, Elyse thought that Isles was the perfect fit for her and her passion for healthy and sustainable urban spaces.
A quarter of a century ago, however, she never anticipated how her urban planning interest would morph into a steadfast determination to confront the enormous problem of environmental issues (mold, pests and lead) affecting the health of children, particularly in distressed urban neighborhoods.
Isles founder and CEO Marty Johnson noted in the introduction to the report that “the debacle of lead-poisoned children in Flint, Michigan, reminded us of the insidious and permanent impact of this toxic poison on a child’s brain.
However, millions of children (and seniors) living in older homes, especially ones with flaking paint, are still being lead poisoned. Today, the vast majority of children who become poisoned by lead come from lower-income families of color—those least able to shoulder this added burden.
This is where community-based nonprofit organizations—especially the 1,000 plus groups that weatherize and retrofit older homes across the country—can step in and play a key role.
This paper illustrates how Isles, Inc. tested and developed low-cost ways to remove lead, asthma triggers and other threats from homes, train local contractors and health workers, educate residents, and perform these tasks for under $10,000 per unit. This is a fraction of the cost of treating the symptoms of just one lead-poisoned child.
Remediating, however, only cures half of the lead problem.
“Educational institutions have failed to focus on lead poisoning as a factor in not only poor physical health, but also deteriorating mental capabilities and emotional stability,” said Elyse.
“In my work at Isles, I am committed to preventing childhood lead poisoning and obtaining better services for children already affected by lead,” she said. “The beacon that guides us is prevention- assess and correct sources of lead hazards before they can affect a child’s brain and rob him/her of their potential in life. If a child has high lead levels, we need to insist that health and education professionals work together to minimize the impact through early-targeted services for these children.
“I just learned that 70 percent of New Jersey children diagnosed with autism receive some kind of early intervention service. Why don’t we do the same for children with high leads? Instead, we seem to wait for them to struggle in school and life, and then try to intervene, when it is more difficult to help them,” she said.
In a presentation she made last week at Thomas Edison State University’s Watson Institute for the New Jersey Urban Mayors Education Association in Trenton, Elyse pointed out that the attendees were surprised –“as people always are” – to learn that 13 cities in New Jersey had a higher percentage of children with higher leads than the city of Flint, Michigan, in 2015, at the height of the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint.
Municipal and education administrators should work with community non-profits, “to identify children with high leads…and then offer early intervention services for these children,” she said.
“Why do we pay so much attention to child lead poisoning,” asked Marty Johnson, rhetorically, in the report. “For starters, thousands (up to half) the kids in Trenton and older suburbs can be affected by it. Research is increasingly clear – that even at low levels, lead impacts IQ, behavior, and other health factors. With all the talk of and investment in education reform, nothing would be more cost effective at increasing child IQ in a region than removing lead from the environment, especially from homes, where kids spend 70 percent of their time.”
Even though lead poisoning was not on her professional radar screen when she graduated from college at the University of Michigan with a degree in anthropology, it was environmental issues in Africa that gave Elyse the epiphany that drew her to urban planning as a profession.
“Thinking it would be exciting for a career in anthropology, I took a semester off from school to travel through Africa,” she said. “Visiting Lagos, Nigeria, (the most populous city in Nigeria, and the second most populous on the African continent after Cairo, Egypt,) I observed people living in huts, next to belching factories – a city and population with no sense of separating land uses, no inkling about how one’s environment affected the health and safety of residents, no city planning whatsoever. I immediately felt compelled to help the world do a better job putting together its urban spaces in a way that truly would benefit its residents.”
And Mercer County residents are grateful that Elyse has chosen to devote her city and environmental planning skills to making their little corner of the world a better place to live.
From the Isles website:
If your house or apartment was built before 1978, you may have lead paint in your home. Lead-based paint, even if hidden under layers of newer lead-free paint, can break down because of age, poor maintenance, or household repairs. Lead can also be found in your water from old plumbing pipes, soil, and even in children’s jewelry, toys, and old pottery. Lead in water has gotten a lot of attention lately, but dust from lead paint can be even more dangerous to young children. 80% or more of lead poisoning is caused by lead paint.
No amount of lead is safe for children under 6. It can cause severe attention, behavior, and learning problems. Lead poisoning is a life-long issue, but lead poisoning is preventable. The first step in protecting your children from lead poisoning is to have your home tested for lead.
Isles wants to test your home’s water and paint for lead at no cost. In fact, we’ll pay you $5 for taking this step towards a healthier home.