Still High Levels of Lead in Drinking Water in NYC Schools

Last year, we analyzed testing data from the 2016-2017 school year on lead in drinking water in schools in New York City in a three-blog series: here, here, and here. Earlier this month, the New York City Department of Education posted the latest round of test data for a limited number of schools tested in 2018—one third of the schools in NYC. The Department of Education stated that it will test the remaining schools in 2019 and 2020.

Here's what the data tell us in this round of testing:

  • 5 percent of tested NYC outlets exceeded the 15 parts per billion (ppb) action level in the 2018 cohort, as compared to 8 percent of total NYC outlets that exceeded the action level in the 2016-2017 dataset, reflecting a larger number of school buildings.
  • 80.3 percent of tested school buildings in the 2018 cohort had at least one outlet exceeding the action level of 15 ppb, with a total of 2,428 fixtures testing above the action level, whereas 82.7 percent of NYC schools’ buildings had at least one outlet exceeding the action level in the 2016-2017 dataset. 
  • Many of the fixtures in the 2018 cohort tested at alarmingly high levels—the highest testing at 13,100 ppb, and more than 590 fixtures testing between 100-13,100 ppb.

The numbers continue to point to a significant health risk because there is no safe level of lead in drinking water for children. Simply stated, New York’s action level of 15 ppb is way too high—even test results below 15 ppb present a significant risk for our kids. 

Tips for Parents for the Coming School Year

As the school year approaches, parents should know that they can play a critical role in protecting their children’s health by making sure drinking water free of lead is on their back-to-school checklists.

Most parents assume the drinking water in their children’s schools is safe. Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Many schools and childcare centers are housed in old buildings with aging plumbing fixtures and pipes that contain lead, which can leach into the drinking water. 

As stated above, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead, which can decrease a child’s cognitive capacity, cause behavior problems, and limit the ability to concentrate—all of which affect lifetime learning.

Here are 5 tips for parents on keeping kids safe from lead-tainted water in schools:

  • Pack water run through a filter certified to reduce lead by the NSF International or Water Quality Association (WQA) in a water bottle for your child every day.
  • Ask the school principal whether the drinking water has been tested for lead and ask for lead test results.
  • Advocate that your school or the school district install NSF International or WQA certified filters to remove lead from drinking water fountains and taps.
  • Spread the word about safe water concerns by talking to your child’s teacher, the school nurse, and your parent-teacher organization.
  • Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns regarding lead in drinking water – let her or him know that the American Academy of Pediatrics states that school drinking water should not contain more than 1 ppb of lead.

About the Authors

Joan Leary Matthews

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

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.