CORONA — New York City is in the midst of re-testing or testing lead levels in water at all of its 1,800 school buildings — many of which haven’t been tested in more than a decade.
But communications on test results — which are publicly available — didn't reach some parents, including at schools with the most elevated lead levels, parents told DNAinfo New York.
Out of roughly 700 school buildings tested this year, nearly 66 percent had elevated lead levels in at least one sample, according to a DNAinfo analysis. And 2 percent — or 14 — of the schools had 10 or more samples with elevated lead levels, including six Queens school buildings which had among the highest number of elevated samples in the city.
But at many of the most affected Queens schools, parents told DNAinfo they hadn't been informed of the elevated levels until a reporter asked them about it last week.
At Corona’s P.S. 14 Fairview — which led the city, with 19 out of 132 samples coming up with unsafe levels of lead — nearly a dozen parents told DNAinfo that they had never been notified about the problem.
"I didn't know anything about it,” said Monica Salas as she brought her 9-year-old daughter Layla to school last week.
According to the Department of Education, P.S. 14's principal sent home a letter with students on April 16 notifying them of the elevated samples and assuring them the water was now safe to drink. The letter was sent in English, Spanish, Chinese and Bengali, DOE officials said.
But the letter seemed not to have reached many parents at the school, where more than a quarter of students are English Language Learners, and nearly 95 percent are Hispanic or Asian.
Isabella Modica, a second grader at P.S. 14. Her mom, Luz Guitierrez, said she hadn't heard about issues with the school's water and that it was a "major concern" that she wasn't told.
City schools with any elevated levels are now under a Health Department protocol, which ranges from regular flushing of pipes to remove stagnant water in less severe cases to immediately removing affected pipes and plumbing in more serious cases.
At P.S. 171 in Astoria, which had 17 elevated samples out of 384, mom Quachelle Cooper said she had no idea about the water issues.
“I didn’t even hear about it or get a letter or anything,” said mom Quachelle Cooper, who has a son in second grade. “That’s crazy — I’m just finding out on the last day of school.”
At the nearby P.S. 127 in East Elmhurst, which had 16 elevated samples out of 144, teachers said the school sent home a few letters and also posted signs saying not to use the water fountains.
But many parents still didn't get the memo about the issues — which teachers stressed had since been fixed, and the water was now safe.
"I give him a bottle of water to bring to school, but I wasn't explained anything about the water,” said mom Allie Semple, whose 10-year-old Sha attends P.S. 127.
Communication with families at these three schools — which are all Title 1 schools where most students are on free or reduced lunch — seemed spottier than at a small middle school in Downtown Manhattan where Shino Tanikawa, who heads Manhattan’s Community Education Council 2 (which includes TriBeCa, Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side) sends her child.
There, the principal sent an email communication in March about the three elevated samples found, explaining that the pipes where those samples had been taken were shut off. He also noted that the school would be testing its water every other month, all water fountains would be flushed every week and purified water was available to students in the cafeteria.
“The information was helpful and reassuring,” Tanikawa said because she knew the problem was “being addressed in a specific, systematic way.”
She also appreciated that purified water was available for “those who want to play it safe.”
Lead in water has not been linked to any recent cases of poisoned children in New York City and the city's water itself meets or exceeds all federal and state standards, but due to older internal plumbing and fixtures, lead test results may still be elevated, city officials have noted.
Of the 840 children under 6 years of age that were identified with elevated blood lead levels in 2014, which is the most recently available health department data, none were attributed to lead in water.
However, following a troubling round of incidents of toxic levels of lead in water at cities around the nation, including in Flint Michigan and in Hoosick Falls, NY, Albany passed a last-minute deal at the end of the legislative session to include a mandate for lead testing at all schools across the state.
The bill includes a funding provision for districts to help cover the costs of testing, which is about $5,000 per school, according to reports. The state would also cover some costs of remediation, if elevated levels are found. Money from the state schools construction fund is a likely source of funding, many said.
DOE officials said the city already takes the most comprehensive remediation steps for any buildings that ever had an elevated level on any sample and has a comprehensive protocol in place.
“The city has developed a strong program of its own to identify and remediate the problem,” said Eric Goldstein, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noting that one of the benefits of the state’s program is funding for remediation. “This could mean millions of unanticipated dollars as it moves forward to address lead in schools where it identifies the problem.”
He added, “It’s a good thing that both the state and city are stepping up their testing. [It] probably should have begun many years ago, but we’re glad it’s underway now.”
Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, said that the percentage of NYC schools with elevated lead samples was "not an abnormal level of problems," but was "entirely within the range of expectations, unfortunately."
Of the city's measures, he said, "I applaud them for their efforts to prevent future harmful exposures to students."