Not surprisingly, New York State’s political leadership has been crowing about the successes of the 2016 legislative session. And there have been successes, as well as notable failures. But in one key area, the governor and the legislature approved an important bill. The bill requires that New York State schools will soon have to start testing for lead in drinking water.
Lead is a persistent and bio-accumulative toxic metal that is a threat to public health. When consumed, even low levels of lead can have a harmful impact on almost every system and organ in the human body. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at zero, as any level of lead exposure can be detrimental to human health. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children.
This highly toxic substance is a particular threat to children whose bodies absorb more lead than adults. Even low levels of lead exposure in children have been linked to, among other symptoms: damage of the nervous system; lowered IQ; learning disabilities; behavior problems; slowed growth; hearing problems; anemia; and in extreme cases ingestion of lead by young children has been linked to seizures, coma and death.
Lead contamination of public school water supplies poses a serious threat to children.
As a result, some school districts have already been voluntarily testing for lead, and the findings have been disturbing: nearly 100 schools in New York recently tested positive for lead in drinking water supplies.
The bill that was approved provides state aid for much of the cost of the testing and potential remediation. The New York State School Boards Association had raised concerns about the legislation, specifically that schools would not have adequate resources to pay for the tests. The final version of the legislation expanded the state’s ability to offer aid to schools to cover most of the cost.
Of course, it was surprising that the issue ran into any opposition, school kids shouldn’t be exposed to poisons while attending classes. As a result of this legislation, at least in terms of lead exposure, they will be protected.
Schools with their own wells are currently required to test drinking water, but not those on municipal systems. The problem is that even on municipal systems, lead can seep into water once the water leaves the plant and end up in the tap, usually from older plumbing systems that still contain lead.
There have been concerns that tests that result in too high levels of lead in schools’ drinking water supplies have been kept from parents and the public at large. To ensure that does not happen, the bill requires schools to test for lead at the tap and inform parents and teachers of the results. In addition, the state Health Department would have to release an annual report on its findings.
The bill would require the health and education departments to develop regulations for schools to test for lead, and the agencies would have to release its initial findings by year's end.
New York State Senator Tom O’Mara from Central New York and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo from Binghamton were the legislative champions of the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by the governor. The governor’s office played an important role in pushing the final version of the bill.
Of course, there is no reason to stop with testing for lead alone. There have been media reports of other contaminants identified in municipal water supplies, most notably in the recent reports about industrial wastes being found in the Hoosick Falls area in the upper Hudson Valley.
New York – unlike much of the rest of the nation – is blessed with an abundance of water supplies. However, the water supplies are only useful to the public if it is clean. The legacy of industrial pollution, coupled with an aging infrastructure, raises the specter of more widespread threats to the state’s water systems.
Testing is an important first step, but only that – a first step. Testing requirements should be expanded and monies made available for needed cleanups. The public’s health depends on it.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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