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Here's What You Need to Know About Lead Water Testing in City Schools

By Amy Zimmer | February 14, 2017 2:02pm
 Water fountains at a Brooklyn school.
Water fountains at a Brooklyn school.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

MANHATTAN — Public school parents across the city have been alarmed and confused by conflicting information they're getting from the city about the lead levels in their children's school water.

The city sent out the results of a round of tests last year that gave many families the impression that lead contamination in schools was relatively limited. But parents began getting another round of letters from their schools from late last year into this year that revealed the problem with lead was far more widespread.

Under last year’s testing standards, just 1 percent of more than 112,000 samples collected from school water fixtures had elevated levels, according to DOE data.

However during the the latest round of testing, there have been 9 times more outlets discovered to have above-federally-allowable lead levels in the testing to date — with many schools still left to be tested — according to a report from the New York State Department of Health.

Of more than 46,600 outlets tested as of Jan. 25, 9 percent had lead levels above the “action level” set by the Environmental Protection Agency of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

The change in levels is the result of increasingly stringent lead test protocols the city must now follow after Albany passed an emergency lead law in the wake of toxic levels of lead found in water in Flint and Newark.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, applauded the new wave of testing.

"Parents should be pleased that NYC re-tested in a manner that found these problematic taps, and is taking decisive action to mitigate them," he said in an email. "When it comes to lead, we cannot undo harm from past exposure —we can only prevent future unnecessary exposure."

He added, "Lead adversely affects every major organ system of the human body, and it is official U.S. government policy that there is no safe level of lead exposure."

Here's what you need to know about lead in city schools:

►Why and how did the testing change?

Albany enacted legislation in September mandating lead testing in all schools across the state be completed by Oct. 31, 2016 according to a set of standards that is stricter than what the city had followed last year. The DOE came under criticism for some of its looser testing protocols last year when it voluntarily reintroduced testing after more than a decade in the case of some schools.

Last year, the DOE flushed the pipes the night before testing, running the water against recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The act of running water, or "flushing" can show results below their true levels, according to the New York Times, which exposed the practice last summer.

Under the new state guidelines for testing, the city is no longer allowed to flush the pipes at least 8 hours before a test. The city updated its protocols and it no longer includes the pre-test flushing, DOE officials said.

“It is a more rigorous testing because now there’s less water running through,” said the DOE’s Deputy Chancellor for Operations, Elizabeth Rose, “The water is stagnant for at least 8 to 18 hours.”  

The city is now also required to give parents much more information about lead test results at their schools. That includes the total number of outlets — water fountains, kitchen sinks or bathroom sinks — that have been tested in their school. Parents must also be notified of the exact lead levels found and where those samples were taken. 

Last year, the city only told parents if the school had any elevated levels, without specifying how elevated they were or where those samples were found.

The state requires the city to inform parents of the results within 10 days of testing and post remediation plans online within six weeks. 

However, the city said it will not release the full data to the public until all schools are tested, which is expected to be completed by the end of the month, DOE officials said. The State Department of Health would also not release results from this round of testing.

Critics said they are concerned that the DOE isn't being transparent enough about its testing and reporting of results.

"DOE officials have dragged their feet ever since the scandal erupted in Flint and refused to test the lead in NYC school water according to what experts said was the most accurate method," said Leonie Haimson, of the advocacy group Class Size Matters. "Instead, they minimized the problem and sent out confusing and often inaccurate messages to parents."

For example, parents were shocked to learn exactly how high lead levels were at Inwood's Muscota New School and Amistad Dual Language School after getting the second round of DOE letters which showed levels as high as 6,620 ppb in a boys bathroom sink. Parents at Roosevelt Island’s P.S./I.S. 217 were surprised and alarmed to discover a weight room sink had lead levels measuring 3,430 ppb.

“I think the main thing is, how long has it been going on for?” said Sam Park, a parent at the Upper West Side's P.S. 9, where several water samples from classrooms came back positive with high lead levels last month.

The DOE insists they have been transparent and have worked with all schools with test results to date to ensure that the information is disseminated in all relevant languages.

What happens if the city finds elevated lead levels at a school?

When elevated samples are found at drinking or cooking water outlets, those fixtures are immediately removed from service. With hand-washing sinks, the DOE hangs signs instructing students and staff not to drink from them if they have elevated results.

As part of the remediation plans, schools have to flush the system every Monday to eliminate water sitting in pipes over the weekend. In addition, schools are required to replace equipment and re-test outlets after the equipment is replaced, officials said.

“We are taking action. There really is no reason for parents to be alarmed," Rose said.
"What we are trying to communicate to parents is that even if there are some elevated samples, more samples are not elevated, which shows you the water is safe. It shows you it’s the fixture [that's a problem].”

The city expects to post all of the levels from tests conducted so far on each school’s individual DOE-run website.

However the DOE will not include those details on its citywide water safety search portal that they touted last year as a one-stop shopping for parents who want to easily look up lead results.

Instead, they will only include an abridged version of the lead levels which will state whether there was a presence of elevated lead, but not how much or where.

Should parents worry?

The most common source of lead exposure in New York is not water, but lead-based paint in homes, particularly in housing built before the state banned lead paint in 1960.

Still, the American American Academy of Pediatrics this summer urged a change in new federal standards to ensure that water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 part per billion rather than the current 15 parts per billion allowable now.

While children over the age of 3 in New York are not required to have their lead levels tested, Haimson believes the city should start testing older kids in schools with elevated lead levels, given new information.

Exposure to lead is particularly dangerous to small children and can disrupt cognitive functions and can cause behavioral problems.

“Children at every school with elevated levels should probably also have their blood tested, as research shows that even relatively small levels of lead in blood are associated with lower student achievement and higher rates of special needs,” Haimson said.

Columbia public health professor and lead poisoning expert Joe Graziano said while the information seems alarming and lead is a contaminant to take very seriously, he doesn't see a need to worry.

His daughter, a teacher in Long Island where schools are also being tested for lead, recently called her dad when she saw some water fountains blocked off because of elevated water test results.

“I said to my own daughter, I don’t think you need to be alarmed,” he said. “It’s likely that the water fountains used regularly are the ones that have the lowest concentrations [of lead]. It’s the ones where a water fountain or sink is tucked away that might be a problem.”

Oxiris Barbot, the first deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Health, dismissed the lead levels to date as nothing to be concerned about.

“While generally it’s never a good idea to drink water with lead, a child would need to drink significant amounts of water on a daily basis for there to be a risk,” Barbot said.

Lead in water has not been linked to any known cases of poisoned children in New York City, she added.

In addition, Barbot said the best way to ensure safe drinking water in schools is to use the faucets as much as possible to keep them flushed.

Her message to kids: “Drink more water in schools,” because, "the more you run the water through the pipes, the more you're flushing out the stale water."

READ MORE: Lead Poisoning in City Kids Persists Despite Drop in Cases, Data Show

How is this different from Flint?

Unlike in Flint, where officials switched to a new source of water without taking steps to treat it, allowing the more acidic water to corrode the pipes and leach lead into the water supply, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection takes measures to monitor the water to minimize corrosion from lead pipes.

"The situation here is night and day from Flint. There they switched their water source and didn’t pay attention to protective measures. Here we take precautions," Barbot said.

Still, lead can be absorbed through pipes and fixtures, and when water remains stagnant in these fixtures, it gives the lead more time to leach into the water, city officials say.

That's why New Yorkers are encouraged to run water for 30 to 60 seconds each morning before drinking it.