Safer Drinking Water in Schools: NY Leg. Votes for Our Kids

The New York State Legislature passed a bill (S2122-A / A160-B) in the closing days of this legislative session to require more stringent measures to reduce lead in drinking water in schools. This is a huge victory for kids!

Stacey Newman/iStock

In 2016, New York State adopted the first-in-the-nation mandatory program to test and remediate for lead at all drinking water taps in every public school in the state. But the data showed that too many taps were testing above the 15 parts per billion (ppb) action level: 82 percent of public schools reported one or more taps tested above the state lead action level, which is already not a health-protective level.

In fact, there is no safe level of lead for children. This new legislation would reduce the action level to 5 ppb, closer to the action level of 1 ppb recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Schools are the places where children spend the most time outside their homes. When they are in school, children deserve to drink water free from lead. This bill is a necessary step in the right direction.

Why School Drinking Water Contains Lead

Lead gets into drinking water in schools from the plumbing fixtures and fittings within the schools; it does not come in the water from the water utility. The lead leaches or flakes off from the plumbing products within the schools. The problem is that there is no such thing as truly lead-free plumbing products.

For decades—up until 1986—there were no restrictions on the content of lead in plumbing products. In 1986, Congress amended the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to require “lead-free” plumbing products to contain up to a whopping 8 percent of lead. This definition of lead-free was in effect until 2014.

In 2011, but effective in 2014, “lead-free” under the Safe Drinking Water Act now allows up to 0.25% of lead in pipe materials labeled “lead-free” (technically, “not more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures” and “not containing more than 0.2 percent lead when used with respect to solder and flux”).

What this means is that schools can have plumbing products that predate 1986, or were installed between 1986-2014, and then after 2014, all with varying levels of lead.

Filter First Strategy

Until the plumbing manufacturers market truly lead-free plumbing products, the best way to address this situation right now is a “Filter First” strategy. Schools should install water filtration stations—a drinking water fountain that has a filter certified to remove lead from the drinking water. Kids can refill their water bottles at these stations.

The day will come when we have truly lead-free plumbing products. Until that day, Filter First in schools is the most protective and effective remediation for the water that our kids drink in their schools.

Other Measures of the Bill

The bill that the NY Legislature passed included other measures to improve New York’s existing program, such as:

  • changing the frequency of testing from every five years to every three years;
  • requiring the posting of the actual lab reports, obviating the need to file Freedom of Information Law requests for the data;
  • eliminating the waiver from testing and remediation for so-called “lead-free” schools;
  • making certain that schools provide alternative water, if necessary, to school occupants at no cost to them; and
  • providing funding for remediation from the state’s Clean Water Infrastructure Act.

Schools are the places where children spend the most time outside their homes. When they are in school, children deserve to drink water free from lead. This bill is a necessary step in the right direction. We thank the New York State Legislature for its leadership on this important program, especially the bill sponsors, Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and we will work with the New York Governor to ensure that this bill is signed into law.

About the Authors

Joan Leary Matthews

Senior Attorney and Director, Urban Water Management, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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