Grade F to A? Getting Rid of Lead in School Drinking Water

Part III: Recommendations to improve the state’s requirements and schools’ compliance


Co-author: Claire L. Barnett, Founder and Executive Director, Healthy Schools Network*


We previously wrote about the problem of lead in drinking water in New York public schools. First, we provided information about the state’s 2016 law that requires testing to fill a gap in federal regulation. Then we provided our analyses of the testing data. Healthy Schools Network also recently issued a report on its first findings of the New York law.


Here’s our overall conclusion: many children attend public schools in New York State that tested positive for lead in the drinking water at high levels at one or more taps or water fountains. This is a serious problem because there is no safe level of lead in anyone’s drinking water, and especially the water consumed by children and by expectant moms. Most school personnel are women, and most are of child-bearing age. Moreover, children are encouraged to drink plenty of water at school – with breakfast and lunch, after gym or at sports, and during after school activities. 


Our analyses of the state’s report of testing raise a number of concerns including but not limited to:


  • The state data are incomplete; there are no data for some schools.
  • The state report also does not reveal the cost of testing, or the range of lead found (e.g., 5 ppb to 20,000 ppb), and the remediation actions taken.
  • The data show a wide variation in reporting and testing.


It’s hard to manage what you don’t measure. These issues are problematic because they affect our ability to gain a complete picture of the extent of lead contamination in New York public schools. To illustrate, judging by the number of outlets each school reported testing, some schools over-reported or over-tested outlets, and some under-reported outlets tested or did not test or report. Additionally, the dataset for schools outside of NYC that reported outlets testing above 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead did not report the actual level of exceedance.


Neither the state law nor the state Department of Health (DOH) regulations require this detail in reporting. However, if they did, it would give us important information as to the severity of the exceedances and therefore suggests the extent of local remedial actions that need to be financed. In other words, New York State needs to know the scope of the problem to figure how big of a check it needs to write to fix the problem.


Clearly, updates to the law and regulations, and possibly funding, and additional training about testing, reporting, and remediation are needed.


Recommendations to the Governor and the New York State Legislature


Since there is no safe level of lead for any child, New York should double down on its commitment to pave the way nationally by proactively finding and eliminating lead before, not after, children are harmed. That means ensuring that the NYS Department of Health (DOH) has the authority and the resources to protect children. Ideally, strengthening testing protocols and remediation would be a better preventative response. However, when children are found with elevated blood lead levels, DOH should be able to assess all sources of lead, including in schools and child care facilities, not just in the child’s home.


Amendments to the Current Law or Regulations


  • Amend the law to include, statewide, all PreK-12 private schools and state-licensed and -inspected child care facilities – requiring testing, reporting, and remediation for these schools and child care facilities.


  • Lower the New York State lead in drinking water action level (15 ppb) for school and child care drinking water to match the federal Food and Drug Administration’s standards for lead in bottled water (currently 5 ppb).


Study the Test Results for Rich v. Poor Schools


  • Conduct and publish a study comparing results on testing lead at school taps with the percentage of students on subsidized meal programs, school standardized test scores, the presence of elevated blood levels (EBL) among students, and reports on the age and status of water and plumbing systems in the most recent Building Condition Survey for that school.


Improve the Testing, Data Collection, and Reporting


  • To assist local schools, NYS should offer a cash prize for technology innovation for a speedy and accurate and affordable lead-at-the-tap test.  


  • Direct DOH to swiftly conclude its review and “cleaning” of the data to close the gaps and produce a full picture of steps needed to permanently reduce lead in school drinking water.


  • Direct that the final state report to the public include for each school the range (low-high) of the actual at-the-tap test results and types of remediation in place or planned.


  • Direct DOH, advised by SED, to provide twice annual online training to school district personnel on the proper ways to test and report.


  • Direct DOH to authorize an outside agency to perform random testing at the taps. This could include local health agencies and or food service inspectors, who perform inspections twice a year in schools participating in subsidized meal programs.


  • Direct DOH or SED or local health departments to spot-check and or conduct on-site investigations when results of testing at the tap suggest that school or child care facility water fountains or other contaminated fixtures may be on a manufacturer’s recall.


  • Direct DOH to ensure that all education and health agencies retain all original reports from public schools on testing for lead at the tap, correct test-at-the-tap reports uploaded by local schools, and make the final reports public.


Improve Remediation


  • Invest in pilots for remediation to gain insight into issues and costs for replacing all taps.


  • Ensure that schools do not permanently shut down taps, and rely solely on filters, bottled water, or water stations.  Filters and bottled water are NOT appropriate long-term solutions.


  • Post periodic public notices about the need to maintain and replace water filters.


New York should be commended by taking the first real actions to address the problem. Like any public policy process, the devil is always in the details. New York has a real opportunity to take a step forward and lean in, or let the details stand in the way of meaningful progress. We are confident that New York State’s improvement of this program to form the 2.0 version of the lead testing in schools effort will go a long way in preventing children from being exposed to lead – which is a win-win for everyone.


*HS Network, the award-winning national advocate for children’s environmental health at school, has its feet on the ground in New York where it championed the first-in-the-nation state law requiring all public schools to test at the tap for lead.