School Drinking Water Gets an F for Lead

Lead Testing Exceeds State Levels in 82 Percent of New York State Public Schools

Part II: Analyzing the lead testing data

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 and the state’s response with a new state law – first among all states – that requires testing for lead to fill a gap in federal regulation. It is important to know that private schools will also have lead in water, but the state opted not to include private schools.

Public school parents should take some comfort that schools are now testing and telling, but should not take any comfort with an “action level” at 15 ppb. New York chose that number because it is lower than the action level of 20 ppb in EPA’s voluntary guidance for schools that take water from municipal systems. But, 15 ppb is not a “health-based” number. The fact is that the health based number is 0 ppb – there is no safe level of lead for children. Additionally, the detection of lead in drinking water can produce results that are highly variable. This means that just because an outlet did not test positive for lead doesn’t mean that lead won’t be detected at another time.

Public schools are required to test all “outlets.” The state defines an outlet as “a potable water fixture currently or potentially used for drinking or cooking purposes, including but not limited to a bubbler, drinking fountain, or faucets” (10 NYCRR 67-4.2(e)). The number of outlets varies in each school building.

The law also requires schools to upload summary test results to a state excel form hosted by the State Education Department and the Department of Health, as well as post the actual results on the school’s website. Unfortunately, test results for private school drinking water are not reflected in the data because private schools are not covered by the law.

NRDC’s review of the statewide testing data found that a majority of New York State public school buildings had at least one outlet testing above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

 

Here’s what NRDC found: serious lead contamination of drinking water in New York public school buildings.

  • Around 82 percent of public school buildings reported one or more taps that tested above the state lead action level (15 ppb).
  • More than 56 percent of New York public school buildings statewide tested above the state action level at five percent or more of their water outlets, with a higher rate of taps closed for schools outside New York City (59%) than inside New York City (51%).
  • Almost 2% of the public school buildings statewide found elevated levels for at least half of the outlets tested, with a higher rate outside New York City (2.4%) than in New York City (1.1%)
  • 16 public school buildings exceeded the state action level at every outlet tested (9 outside NYC and 7 in NYC), but some of these schools tested very few outlets, which could point to an issue with the data that was entered into the system.

How NRDC calculated the lead in drinking water results

 

NRDC downloaded the schools’ lead testing data from the NYS Department of Health (DOH) health data website, and the NYC Department of Education (DOE) water safety website in February 2018. We combined the data in a single dataset. Each school was counted only once in calculations.

The database we used contains reports from 4,662 buildings with public schools, but we took 250 schools (all outside NYC) out of our analysis because they had incomplete forms, and 10 schools that listed they had tested zero outlets (all outside NYC), leaving a total of 4,402 school buildings in our analysis. Of these 4,402 school buildings, there are almost twice as many school buildings outside NYC (2,861 or 65%) as there are within NYC (1,541 or 35%). It is worth noting the number of schools listed in this data set is different from the total number of schools listed by the New York State Education Department, which could be related to multiple school reporting units located in one school facility.

In compliance with the law, New York City, the nation’s single largest school district, posted data from all of the district’s schools. And as the law requires, New York State produced a state-level report from all districts. The New York City data show by how much a school water outlet exceeded the action level.

Those data – how much an outlet exceeded the action level – were not reported on the DOH statewide report. To obtain those data for schools outside New York City, you would need to go to the individual district or the school’s website. Knowing the actual lead levels or the range of lead detected at a school water outlet is important – the severity of the lead contamination affects the health risk to the child and could affect the estimated cost of permanent remediation the state is required to reimburse.  

Healthy Schools Network Analysis

 

Healthy Schools Network looked at statewide data as well, focusing on the gaps in the data from the state, and then on the presence of lead in school water in schools serving children in poverty. The Network randomly selected one of every 100 schools on the state list for a culled sample of 45 public schools statewide.

Lead Service Lines

Using the State Education Department’s required Building Condition Survey (BCS) for local public schools conducted once every five years since the year 2000, Healthy Schools Network looked to see what kind of water service lines the 45 sampled schools had. 

  • The Network found that none of the 45 sampled schools reported having lead service lines to their buildings. In fact, on the entire 2015 BCS reports, not one public school statewide reported having lead service lines. The Network cannot access the similar BCS reports for the year 2010, but note that it would not be unusual for annexes or smaller facility units to have lead service lines.

Students in poverty and percent of taps closed

The Network also found that the average percent of students in subsidized meal programs among the 15 schools with the highest number of taps closed was 52.7% of students enrolled. The number of schools that reported zero taps over the action level was more than 15 schools. The Network looked at a random selection of 15 with zero taps closed listed on the spreadsheet. The average poverty percentage in those 15 schools was 34.7%.

  • This means that the poorest children appear to be enrolled in schools with the greatest number of taps closed due to lead contamination.

Other issues with the testing and data compilation

 

The state is currently reviewing and “cleaning” the statewide data and it has many gaps to fill to produce a full picture of how to remediate lead in school water.

The data also make it very difficult to understand how many schools have performed comprehensive testing. To illustrate, the city database does not have an entry for the total outlets in each school and the total outlets tested.

Moreover, while the state, with US EPA, hosted webinars on how to follow the recommended protocols for drawing water samples, reading state reports, there is no way to know what protocol was used.

What the testing data tell us – the bottom line

 

The data available because of the 2016 law in New York State tell us that many young children attend schools in the state that have drinking water outlets that test above the action level for lead. Clearly, improvements in testing and reporting are necessary. More clearly, as there is no safe level of lead for any child, we should be asking all schools to being to eliminate all sources of lead.  Additionally, lead also affects pregnancies and fetuses – it can cause miscarriages, early births, low birthweights and harm to the developing baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous systems. These are risks experienced by school employees, most of which are women often of child-bearing age.

Next:  Recommendations to improve the testing, reporting, and remediation of lead exceedances in New York State public schools

*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.

About the Authors

Joan Leary Matthews

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

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