Lead in water was common in city schools


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Department of Education says remediation of outlets was immediate


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  • DOE test results showed thirteen drinking fountains with elevated lead levels in the Broadway Educational Campus, which houses three public schools in the Financial District’s Standard Oil Building. Photo: Gryffindor, via Wikimedia Commons



Department of Education testing showed that drinking water in a number of downtown schools, including the Leadership and Public Service High School and Greenwich Village Elementary School, contained lead at concentrations greater than state-mandated action levels for the toxic metal during the last school year.

The New York City DOE completed lead testing on drinking and cooking water outlets in every public school in the city during the 2016-2017 school year. Results showed that 83 percent of school buildings had at least one water sample with lead levels above the action level of 15 parts per billion. Elevated lead levels were found in roughly 8 percent of all samples.

After testing, the DOE sent letters notifying parents and staff of their individual school’s results. Results for each building were made available on schools’ individual websites, but a single, comprehensive database of results for each outlet tested in every school was not made available by the DOE until recently, following a freedom of information law request filed by Straus News.

The DOE’s remediation protocol calls for outlets with elevated lead results to be immediately removed from service and replaced. Outlets are not returned to service until follow-up testing shows that lead levels are below the 15 ppb action level.

“Many of the elevated water samples came from fixtures that are not typically used for drinking, including bathrooms, slop sinks, and laboratories,” read one DOE letter to parents and staff. Faucet-level test results, however, show that elevated samples were found in drinking fountains at many schools.

Thirteen drinking fountains had elevated results, including three with concentrations above 200 ppb, at the Broadway Educational Campus, a school complex in the Financial District that houses the Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women, the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, and Lower Manhattan Community Middle School.

More than a third of all samples had elevated lead levels at the Leadership and Public Service High School in the Financial District, including a hallway drinking fountain with results of 278 ppb.

A higher proportion of elevated results in a given building did not necessarily correlate with higher lead levels in the school’s individual water outlets. For example, only two of the 176 samples tested at P.S. 87 William Sherman on the Upper West Side turned up elevated results, but one was a cold water faucet in a first floor classroom with test results of 1,191 ppb, nearly 80 times greater than the action level.

At P.S. 41, Greenwich Village Elementary School, a classroom drinking fountain had results of 226 ppb. It was the only one of the eight elevated samples at the school taken from a drinking fountain (the other seven came from cold water faucets).

DOE Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth A. Rose wrote in an April 2017 letter to families and staff that the department’s testing “demonstrates that we do not have any systemic issues with water in our school buildings and our remediation protocol is effective.” Lead poisoning rates among New York City children have declined in recent years, and according to the DOE there has never been a known case of lead poisoning due to water in city schools.

The DOE has said that elevated lead levels found during testing are not necessarily reflective of actual lead levels students and staff are likely to encounter during the day, as testing was performed on water that had sat in pipes overnight. The DOE says that lead levels drop sharply after faucets are first used each day and stagnant water is cleared from the pipes.

Lead enters drinking water primarily through the corrosion of lead plumbing materials, which are now banned but were once widely used. For adults, exposure to lead over time can result in a number of harmful effects, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney disease. Young children, who absorb ingested lead at a higher rate than adults, are particularly susceptible to harmful effects of lead exposure, which can have permanent negative impacts on the development of the brain and nervous system.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emphasizes that there is no safe level of lead exposure. The 15 ppb action level is not a health-based benchmark; rather, it is an action level for implementing treatment techniques aimed at reducing lead levels at the tap. According to the World Health Organization, “There appears to be no threshold level below which lead causes no injury to the developing human brain.”



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