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City Website to Reassure Parents About Safe Water at Schools Confuses Some

By Amy Zimmer | March 24, 2016 6:49pm
 This is the information displaced about lead levels in water at P.S. 20.
This is the information displaced about lead levels in water at P.S. 20.
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Screenshot from DOE website

MANHATTAN — Amid recent reports of elevated lead levels in drinking water from Flint to Newark, New York City’s public schools took a proactive step, making available online this week results of water tests from nearly 89,000 samples taken over the last 14 years.

The results were overwhelmingly positive: only 1.13 percent of the samples were found to have elevated levels on the “first draw” (taken after water was resting in faucet pipes for hours or day) and just 0.09 percent had elevated levels on second draws, after the water ran for a while, according to the city’s data.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Health Commissioner Mary Bassett wrote a letter to parents Wednesday announcing the new tool and reassuring them that there was no cause for concern, but the information given for many schools appeared conflicting, confusing and often just left them with more questions, parents said.

City officials told DNAinfo New York that the site was still in “beta” mode and they would be updating it shortly to make things more clear — especially since they wanted parents to understand that things are indeed safe here, they said.

In fact, just hours after DNAinfo inquired about the database, some changes were already made, including adding the date of when elevated lead levels were found.


PS 20

An image of the information for P.S. 9 in Maspeth before DNAinfo reached out to the city (top) and a few hours after the city made changes clarifying the year elevated levels were found (bottom).

"The safety of drinking water is something our parents and staff can count on," Fariña said in a statement. "Our new web portal is an additional step towards this assurance."

But for parents at schools like the Lower East Side’s P.S. 20, which, according to the new database had one elevated sample found out of 48 samples tested in 2004, there was little other information about the current status of the water.

“The DOE should give us information we can use and easily understand,” said Shannon McHugh, a parent at P.S. 20.

“It is highly disturbing that our building has not been tested since 2004,” she said. “When will our school be tested again? That test is 12 years old.”

She added: “How can I tell if these protocols are actually being followed at P.S. 20?”

At any school where elevated lead levels have been found, Health Department protocols are in place, which include weekly flushing of pipes on Monday mornings or after school vacations since these are the only times at which water has been sitting for extended periods.

Flushing has been proven to quickly eliminate any elevated levels and ensure the water is safe to drink, city officials said.

For any school that had elevated levels on second draws, the problems can almost always be traced to a specific piece of equipment, which is either immediately removed, repaired or in some rare cases designated as hand-washing stations only rather than drinkable water, officials explained.

Mayoral spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said the city has been calling schools one-by-one to remind them of the flushing protocols.

Also, all schools are being re-tested again. Any school that has an elevated level found in a sample will be tested again in six months and then two years after that. Other schools will be tested every five years.

“This [database] was to reassure families that every conceivable measure is in place,” she said. “We will continue to tweak the website to be even clearer. Our goal was to be transparent as possible.”

New York City’s tap water meets or exceeds all federal and state standards, officials said, noting that the city regulates its own watershed, testing its water more than 500,000 times each year at various points throughout the system.

The city also treats all water with ortho-phosphate, a common food additive that creates a protective film to help prevent against lead that could potentially leach into the water.  

The city identified and removed any known lead service lines to schools and other municipal buildings from 2008 to 2010 and testing and protocols have been in place at schools since 2002.

The number of children in New York City with lead poisoning declined 80 percent since 2002, officials said. Last year, the Health Department found 45 children who attended public schools had elevated lead levels, but none of the cases were related to water.

Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the data from the city “encouraging.”

“What this information and data suggests: the drinking water in public schools is, in most cases, not a major source of lead exposure,” he said.