Co-author: Claire L. Barnett, Founder and Executive Director, Healthy Schools Network*
Part I: The problem and New York’s response
Every school day, parents send some 55 million children to 130,000 public and private schools nationwide. Families expect that the school will be a healthy place for children, and that includes expecting the school drinking and cooking water to be free of lead and other contaminants. But water pipes and faucets in aging schools harbor lead, the dangerous neurotoxin that has no safe level of exposure for children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
That’s why New York took a major step forward in addressing lead in school water in 2016 by becoming the first state in the country to pass a law requiring school districts to test potable water sources and systems in schools for lead.
Schools are the places where children spend the most time when not at home, making schools important places to address environmental hazards. From the first bus run, through the school day, and to after-school activities, children can spend over 35 hours per week at school. For many children, schools are also the places that provide breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks.
Lead can make schools an unsafe environment for children. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average age of a public school in the US is 44 years, meaning that many public schools were built well before lead was removed from interior paints and reduced in plumbing fixtures.
Yet, when EPA tried to regulate lead in school water, a court ruled that a drafting flaw in the Safe Drinking Water Act prevents EPA from requiring schools to test for lead.
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires operators of drinking water systems to test and report on lead levels with an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) (which is supposed to trigger water system action to reduce lead levels). But schools in urban areas or other areas served by municipal water systems generally are not required under federal law to test at the tap because they don’t operate the drinking water systems. For them, EPA only recommends action once lead levels in school drinking water reach an astounding 20 ppb, using a complex voluntary protocol that EPA calls the 3Ts: “Training, Testing, and Telling.” EPA does not require public reporting if this guidance level is exceeded.
Because the federal law doesn’t require schools on municipal water systems to test for lead, New York State stepped into the breach. Specifically, New York’s law requires public school districts and boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES) to test all potable water outlets for lead, provide free and safe potable water if an exceedance is found, provide parents with the test results, and post the results and remediation plans on the individual schools’ websites. Schools are required to send both the test results and remediation plans to the State Education Department and the State Department of Health. The State Education Department is authorized to reimburse school districts for the costs related to the testing and remediation. The State Education Department must also publish a report biennially on the results of the testing.
Simultaneously with the law’s enactment, the New York State Department of Health issued emergency regulations to implement the new law, providing more detail for school districts and BOCES. (Emergency regulations are effective for 90 days; DOH issued the latest regulations in November 2017.)
The “action level,” meaning the threshold at which schools must act to reduce lead in water, is set at 15 ppb, the same action level established by EPA for operators of water systems. If an exceedance of the action level is detected, schools must prohibit the use of that water outlet, pending implementation of a lead remediation plan followed by testing that shows no exceedance. Schools must also notify parents and staff (within 10 business days) of the exceedance and the plan for remediation, and provide an adequate supply of water for drinking and cooking until the remediation is complete.
Schools and BOCES facilities are required to post on their websites test results and remediation plans that have been implemented. They are also required to report test results electronically to the State Education Department and the State Department of Health. NRDC and the Healthy Schools Network have been analyzing the posted test results.
While New York’s law is not perfect, it is a first and provides a good foundation and lessons for New York and other states to begin to obtain information about the extent of lead contamination in New York schools’ drinking water—and to take action where necessary.
Next: Analyzing the results of testing for lead in New York State 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.