At Least 82 Percent of New York Public Schools Have a Lead Problem

The state now requires its public schools to test their drinking water for lead. But few districts have made it clear how they’re addressing the troubles at their taps.

Credit: Angie Wheeler/Offset

At least 35 hours of the typical American child’s week is spent in school. Add in after-school activities and weekend athletics, and the number grows. Not long after the Flint water crisis came to national attention in 2015, concern started mounting about the drinking water in public schools across the country. These buildings average 44 years in age, and many still use their original pipes and faucets. As it turns out, lead contamination is an alarmingly common problem in schools around the nation.

In New York, testing recently revealed that at least 82 percent of the nearly 5,000 public schools have drinking water lead levels that exceed the state action level of 15 parts per billion. Officials conducted the sampling as a requirement of a state law signed in September of 2016, which also mandates that New York public school districts notify parents and the state of exceedances and remediation plans for potable water sources containing lead.

The New York law—the first of its kind in the country, and part of a wave of similar legislation in eight states in the past two years—was the outcome of advocacy work by a coalition of New York–based groups. These included the Healthy Schools Network (a nonprofit that works on lead- and school-related health and safety issues across the United States), the New York League of Conservation Voters, and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

Given that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Training, Testing, and Taking Action” program for reducing lead in school drinking water is voluntary, the new state legislation is a big step in the right direction. But advocates say it doesn’t go far enough.

Drinking water samples from classroom sinks and cafeteria faucets being tested at Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories
Credit: Richard Drew/AP

“We wanted a requirement, we wanted a better standard, and we wanted remediation and reimbursement,” says Healthy Schools Network founder Claire Barnett. She and her fellow advocates are now eager to see some changes, including a lowering of the lead action threshold to 5 parts per billion, modeled after Washington, D.C.’s new law. (It’s critical to note that lead action levels are not public health safety measures. Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that impairs brain development and cognitive ability and is especially harmful to children and fetuses. No amount of it is safe.)

Advocates also want to broaden the requirements beyond the public school sphere to include private schools and daycare centers. “Kids are kids no matter where they are. It’s not like there’s no lead in these other venues,” says Joan Leary Matthews, director of urban water management at NRDC. In addition to working with the coalition on advancing these goals in New York, Matthews and her NRDC colleagues are developing a model bill for testing lead in schools, informing parents and staff, and taking remedial action that other states across the country can use to create their own legislation.

In the meantime, New York continues to face issues of transparency and communication about the high lead levels in the vast majority of its public schools. And the contamination doesn’t just affect students—many school staff members are women of childbearing age. But staff and parents may not even know they or their children are at risk.

Under the state law, New York schools are required only to report and take action on water outlets that exceed 15 parts per billion of lead—providing the actual lead level numbers is optional. (New York City was the only school district to do so in the first round of mandatory testing.) And despite the legal requirements, communication about the testing is inconsistent, nonexistent, or sparse; often it’s limited to technical spreadsheets of results buried deep on school websites.

Testing revealed that at least 82 percent of the nearly 5,000 New York public schools had drinking water lead levels that exceed the state action threshold of 15 parts per billion.
Credit: Sam Hodgson/The New York Times​/Redux

“With lead, you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, and you can’t taste it. You really don’t know what you’ve got unless you test,” says Barnett. “And if you test, you really should be telling people what you’ve got.”

The lack of communication on these findings isn’t an issue just in New York, says Elin Betanzo, the water engineer who first suspected a problem with the water supply in Flint more than four years ago. Just outside Detroit, where Betanzo lives with her family, recent test results showed elevated levels of the neurotoxin in her children’s school drinking water. It happens to be the same school where Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha—the pediatrician who conducted the critical study that identified increased blood lead levels in Flint’s children—sends her kids. “Even with Mona and me being experts in the field, we’re having a hard time finding the data and convincing them to be straightforward with parents,” she says. (Michigan still only requires voluntary tests for its schools.) “The information they’re putting out is purposefully cryptic.”

Betanzo concedes that many schools are plagued with problems and are already working on tight budgets, but notes that if more schools were open with their findings, it might lead to better funding and resources to deal with the issue on a broad scale. The Detroit school system recently shut off all of its drinking water after lead tests came back positive, and New York City has also been transparent about its lead levels and its efforts to bring them down. These two examples could serve as models for other districts.

Five-gallon water containers in a hallway of Ithaca (New York) High School next to a shut-off drinking water fountain. Water was shut off after 2016 tests showed some elevated lead levels, and work to address the issues is still ongoing in 2018.
Credit: Celia Clarke for WSKG

But in the rest of the Empire State, despite a requirement to draw up and submit remediation plans for lead-ridden taps, most school districts have been less than forthcoming about what they’re actually doing to address the problem. Barnett and fellow advocates say that in addition to frequent sampling and discontinuing use of affected (or all) taps, schools could install filtered hydration stations as a short-term solution. In the longer term, replacing pipes and faucets could dramatically reduce lead.

Other groups are also searching for solutions to the issue. Late last year, NSF International convened a task group to discuss the possibility of making its lead-free certification more stringent for plumbing materials used in schools. NSF/ANSI 61, the current U.S. national standard, allows products to contain up to 0.25 percent lead and to leach up to 5 parts per billion of lead into water. According to Dave Purkiss, vice president of the global water division at NSF International, the majority of NSF-certified plumbing devices could already meet a stricter standard of 1 part billion. And the task group is currently considering whether to apply the more stringent lead-leaching requirement just to products sold to schools or to all plumbing products.

But even with these changes, and despite a ban on new manufacturing, lead-based solder (a product essential for joining pipes together) is still on the market. Betanzo sees the persistence of these materials as the crux of the problem—and eliminating them as the only way to truly solve it in schools and elsewhere. “Until you can buy lead-free plumbing and install it everywhere, lead is going to keep turning up,” she says. “If we stop manufacturing with lead, then there’s less lead in the environment and everybody wins.”

In the meantime, despite the shortcomings, testing laws like the one in New York State are a critical recognition of the widespread problem of lead in school drinking water and an important first step in remedying it. But in the absence of such laws, and until we reduce our reliance on lead in manufacturing, parents can help advocate for their kids’ health and safety. “Ask questions, get involved, find out what’s going on in your schools,” Matthews says.

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