New Report Raises Concerns Over Lead In Schools’ Water In New York

May 12, 2016

Credit WAMC Photo by Dave Lucas

Clean water advocates in upstate New York have set their sights on keeping lead out of school drinking water. A coalition of New York public health, environment and healthy schools advocacy groups have banded together as they push state government leaders to take action.

The New York State Department of Health says “primary prevention” – taking deliberate measures to  prevent exposure to lead before it occurs – is the only effective way to protect children and families from lead poisoning.

Jaqi Cohen is the senior legislative associate at The New York Public Interest Research Group. She says lead particularly threatens children, as their bodies absorb the neurotoxin more rapidly than adults, leading to learning disabilities, lower I.Q., developmental and behavioral issues.    "What we're finding is that there are elevated lead levels in schools across New York state. Recently, in New York alone, school districts in Ithaca, Binghamton and now New Rochelle, have been forced to close off taps, close down drinking fountains ands inks because they've found elevated levels of lead in their drinking supply. What groups like NYPIRG and other advocates are calling for are measures by the state legislature to ensure that no student has to continue drinking contaminated poisoned water because of lead infrastructure."

Currently there is no EPA mandate that schools test for lead at the tap.  Health advocates want all water taps at schools across New York tested. Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network, says they've laid out a five-point plan:

-Mandate that all schools test their water for lead and copper contamination at the tap.  "If you don't test you won't find. You really do have to look. And it's important to look."

-Provide safe drinking water if elevated lead levels are in school drinking and cooking water.

-Tell test results to parents and teachers quickly.  "Parents out there who may be slightly alarmed, we urge you to ask to see the lead tests, and thank the school for doing the testing, and thank them for sharing the results."

-Establish a source of funding to pay for remediation such as filters or new pipes.

-Make available an annual report from school water testing by the state Department of Health.   "Schools that are on municipal systems, public water supplies, like the city of Albany, Rochester, so forth, really aren't required to test at the tap for contaminants, but it is schools that are on private well water across the state and across the country, are required to test at the tap for lead and copper and other contaminants."

Christopher Goeken, director of public policy with the New York League of Conservation Voters, notes that lead, either from paint or from water, can have a tremendously bad effect on young children.   "In Rochester there was a special vocation program where every single kid was lead-poisoned, and a lot of the kids coming into the school there had elevated lead levels."

Goeken says lead poisoning can have long-term effects.   "There's been some studies that show that most of the prison population in the United States has elevated lead levels if not straight out lead poisoning. So, parts of the brain that deal with impulse control in particular, seem to be harmed substantially by lead poisoning and elevated lead levels."

Barnett says water testing needs to be stepped up in order to determine how much money needs to be deposited in a remediation fund that could be used to address lead contamination problems as they come to light. The ongoing call to action for healthier and more nutritional school lunches is a call that relies heavily on water.     "So you have to be concerned, not only what's in the cooking water in the kitchen, but also what's in the water at the tap."

She adds children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards than the adults around them.  "They breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and they drink more water per pound of body weight than adults. You certainly don't want to send kids to school to do well on all their work, be in school, stay healthy and achieve to their optimum level, and them, along the way, ask them to drink leaded water. It doesn't work very well.

Goeken says activists are calling on lawmakers to take action.   "We're working closely with legislative leaders in both houses on a bipartisan effort to make sure that schools test their water for lead and we hope to get that done before the end of this session and we want the governor to sign it into law."