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Lead is a metal that acts as a neurotoxin in the brain, and can cause a variety of different adverse health effects. Historically, humans have been aware of the poisonous effects of lead since the Romans. But original encounters with lead were often large dose exposures, which brought on illness quickly and were usually lethal. More recently it has been discovered that chronic, low-level exposure to lead can be just as insidious. In adults such exposures can lead to difficulties during pregnancy, high blood pressure, digestive and nervous disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle or joint pain. In children, defined as those 6 and younger, chronic exposure can lead to behavioral problems, learning disabilities, mental retardation, hearing problems, headaches, seizures or death.
Young children are the most vulnerable portion of the population for having adverse health effects from lead. Young children are much more likely, than adults, to put their hands or objects into their mouths. Lead can settle as dust on objects or soil, and then be ingested by small children. Children are growing rapidly so their bodies absorb more lead than adults do in a given exposure. As opposed to adults, children breathe much more rapidly and thus have the potential to breath in more dust. Children's brains and nervous systems are still developing, which makes them more susceptible to the damage caused by lead.
It was not always known that lead could be toxic in chronic low level exposure. As a result there are still products in circulation that contain lead. Exposure most commonly occurs when someone comes into contact with chipping or peeling lead paint, or lead contaminated dust or soil. Lead contaminates soil when small particles of it are emitted into the air, and then settle back out. There is a lot of land and soil that has been contaminated in this way due to vehicle emissions.
Most cars on the road today are gasoline burning internal combustion engines, or gas ICE's. Gasoline ICE's work differently than diesel, most significantly a gas ICE requires a spark plug for the gas to ignite. Early models of these engines had a problem called "knocking" which occurred when the gas in the chamber spontaneously ignited due to increased heat and pressure, and not from the spark plug. This phenomenon was called knocking because of the loud sound the engine would make. In the 1920's it was discovered that lead substantially reduced engine knocking, and soon was added to most of the nation's gasoline. It was very important to the car industry to fix knocking because it created a lot of wear and tear on the engine, and was frustrating for consumers.
Lead proved to be an excellent anti-knocking agent, and cars proved excellent at distributing lead particles all over the nation's motorways. Lead particles were emitted from the tailpipe, and would settle out of the air onto roads and the land nearby. This was especially true in urban areas with high traffic density. The newly created Environmental Protection Agency finally put a stop to leaded gasoline in 1973. The agency established a phase out that would reduce the amount of leaded gasoline each year beginning in 1975. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 1978 there were 13.5 million children with elevated lead blood levels. Due to increased regulation by 2002 there were 310,000 such children.
Lead deposition from vehicles had a dramatic effect on the state of New Jersey. The population density in the State has always been high, so there were a lot of cars on the road emitting lead. New Jersey is also part of the major north-south thoroughfare for the East coast. All of this combined to make lead a particularly important issue in the State.
To address the issue of lead poisoning then Assemblyman Smith created a television program called "Let's Get The Lead Out". Assemblyman Smith "decided to produce the show in order to help educate the public about the hazards of lead poisoning". He also brought awareness to the legislature, and introduced a package of bills to address the problem. It was his firm belief that the State had to act in the absences of Federal relief for the children affected by lead. One of the main problems was that not enough people understood the danger of lead poisoning, and there was not enough data to know how many children in the State were truly affected. To help the children of New Jersey, Assemblyman Smith introduced A.5235 which would require testing of all children enrolling in a licensed kindergarten, nursery school, or daycare.
With the passage of Public Law 1995 chapter 328 the number of children tested for lead toxicity increased. By requiring testing early in life, this law gave parents the opportunity to seek medical help for their children, before any long term, irreversible damage occurred. Due to increased testing, and the Federal phase out of leaded gasoline, the number of children in the State with elevated blood levels has been steadily decreasing.