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NYC Schools Left Thousands Of Lead-Contaminated Water Spouts Unfixed For Months, and Years
BY CAROLINE LEWIS , JACLYN JEFFREY-WILENSKY AND CHRISTOPHER WERTH, WNYC
Thousands of water fountains, faucets and water bottle refilling stations in New York City schools sat out of commission for months while they awaited additional safety testing or repairs to remove lead. That’s according to a new report from the city Comptroller’s Office.
The audit found more than 5,700 water fixtures had lead levels that violated environmental regulations in 2018 and 2019. Of those, only 537—less than 10%—were fixed and ready for follow-up testing within a month of being flagged. Once they were fixed, close to 30% of the water sources didn’t receive an additional test until after the two-week deadline laid out by the Department of Education (DOE), according to the report.
“No child, teacher, or member of school staff–whether in Washington Heights or Brownsville–should be exposed to lead in our public school buildings,” Comptroller Scott Stringer said in a statement. “Our audit found that the DOE’s testing and remediation of lead was perennially delayed—potentially exposing both students and staff to dangerous levels of lead in school drinking water.”
The report found 11% of school water sources checked between 2016 and 2019 had high lead levels, amounting to 15,860 fixtures spread across 1,323 schools. Overall, 84% of city schools had at least one water fixture with elevated lead.
Brooklyn ranked highest in the percentage of schools and water fixtures with too much lead, as dictated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was followed by Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan and then Staten Island. Two neighborhoods in the Bronx (Bathgate and Melrose) and three in Brooklyn (East New York, Bushwick and Brownsville) recorded the zip codes with the most affected schools. It's unclear from the audit why these particular schools and zip codes have a higher abundance of lead-laden fixtures. The DOE says the age of a building can factor into the amount of lead detected, and the specific neighborhoods in question tend to have older buildings. The new audit from the Comptroller’s Office finds that the Department of Education is largely in compliance with state guidelines around lead testing and remediation—but with some notable exceptions.
While DOE announced in 2018 that it had fixed all water sources with elevated lead, the audit found that many schools waited six months or more to repair fixtures and put them back into service. A pair of Brooklyn schools contained approximately two dozen water sources, apiece, with high lead levels that went unfixed for more than three years.
A pair of Brooklyn schools contained approximately two dozen water sources with high lead levels that went unfixed for more than three years.
“The DOE disagrees with the summary findings of this report, and the majority of the recommendations are consistent with already existing and longstanding policies of the DOE,” Chief Schools Operation Officer Kevin Moran wrote in a letter to the Office of the Comptroller responding to the report.
Stringer’s office has recommended that the New York City’s Education Department do a better job of tracking the timeliness of water fixture testing, remediation and repair—saying there’s no evidence that the department has kept these records. DOE says it has kept track, however. The Comptroller’s Office also urges DOE to ensure that fixtures are tested when school is fully in session—since samples tested over the summer months could skew higher for lead than they would otherwise.
“As required by State law, all potable drinking fixtures in New York City public schools were tested within the allotted five-year window, and out of an abundance of caution we also conducted initial testing in charter and non-public schools,” a DOE spokesperson said via email.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause loss of IQ and behavioral problems in children, even at relatively low levels of exposure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have determined that no level is safe. The number of children in New York City with elevated lead levels in their blood has dropped by 93% since new regulations went into effect in 2005, but that still leaves several thousand kids with high concentrations each year. In some cases, the lead may originate in the pipes, while in others, the contaminant may come from the fixture itself. Per state regulations, water is supposed to remain motionless in the pipes for at least eight hours but less than 18 hours before samples are collected.
Ultimately, protecting children from lead poisoning will require significant work from more than just the Department of Education, said David Rosner, professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“I don’t think it’s one department’s responsibility,” he said. “It’s going to be the whole city government that says they’re going to take this on as a real mandate.”
Correcting Past Mistakes
The protocols around testing for lead in city schools have been under scrutiny ever since the Department of Education came under fire for undercounting the number of water fixtures with elevated lead levels in 2016. Back then, the DOE was engaging in a practice known as “flushing,” in which water fountains and sinks were run for two hours the night before being tested.
Since the initial round of lead testing in 2016 and 2017, which found that 8% of school water sources had high lead levels, the Department of Education switched to screening a third of its facilities each year, according to the audit. The report’s authors used test results from 2018 and 2019 to update the total number of tainted water fixtures in New York City schools. They then calculated the time that elapsed between when a fixture first tested positive for elevated lead and when it was ready to go back into service.
The audit found that 99% of water fixtures in city schools—152,914 in total—received the required first round of testing.
The audit found that 99% of water fixtures in city schools—152,914 in total—received the required first round of testing. It also shows the overwhelming majority of screenings were conducted under the conditions needed to get an accurate result. In particular, contractors tested the water fixtures at least eight hours after they were last used and while school was in session.
“This report creates an increased risk that students, families, and staff will mistakenly believe their health and safety are at risk within school buildings,” a DOE spokesperson said via email. “Our schools have safely and successfully welcomed back thousands of families during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now more than ever it is critical that they receive accurate information about the health and safety of our schools.”
The DOE says when there is a delay in retesting a faucet or fountain that has elevated lead levels, people are not put at risk because the water fixtures are immediately taken out of service.
Since the Department of Education tags hazardous fixtures and removes them from service, it protects students from ingesting leaded water in the short term, said Morri Markowitz, professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
But that assumes that schools provide another, safer source of water, like bottled water, he added. The Future of Clean Water In Schools
It’s not enough just to limit the amount of lead in the water, said David Edelman, a teacher at the Union Square Academy for Health Sciences High School. Edelman, who teaches government, has worked with students to evaluate their school’s access to potable water and advocate for improvements.
“Students weren't using these fountains even before we realized how much lead was in the drinking water,” said Edelman. “The fountains themselves were neglected and broken. The water wasn’t cool. It trickled out. It was almost impossible to use.”
According to the comptroller’s report, it was common for water fountains and faucets to remain out of commission for lengthy periods of time. Of 5,700 fixtures flagged in 2018 and 2019, more than half—51%—weren’t remediated after three months, including the examples at the two Brooklyn schools that took more than three years to repair. Students at Edelman’s school recently had the opportunity to vote on how to use a pot of money. Out of several options, they elected to get new water fountains with filtration systems and bottle fillers. Two have since been installed in the building, which Edelman says cost around $3,000 in total.
“They’re clean and easy to use, and students appreciate having access to bottle fillers,” Edelman said. He added that his students sent samples of water from different fixtures in the building to a commercial lab for testing and found that the water from the new fountains tested “as near zero as you could” for lead.
Given the delays in compliance, advocates and lawmakers say it’s time for the rules around lead in schools to evolve. “This audit should be a teachable moment for the city Department of Education to speed up its processes for fixing its fixtures before the next round of testing,” Josh Klainberg, Senior Vice President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, told WNYC/Gothamist in an emailed statement.
The state legislature passed a billon June 9th that would lower the acceptable amount of lead in school drinking water by a third—from 15 parts per billion to 5 parts per billion. An analysis of water testing data by the New York League of Conservation Voters found that an additional 9% of outlets—9,095 total—would require remediation if the new action level were adopted, more than doubling the number of drinking fountains and faucets initially identified with elevated lead levels.
Districts would also be called upon to provide any school that has contaminated drinking water with a free alternative source of potable water while remediation is taking place—a measure that could involve filtration systems. “We worked very hard with many of our environmental advocate friends who have been working on this for a long time to get down to five parts per billion for lead in water,” said Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State Parent Teachers Association, an organization representing parents and teachers statewide. “There is no safe level of lead in water, but as we continue to remediate the situation, we will just protect children more.” The legislation, which is still awaiting a signature from Governor Andrew Cuomo, would also permit school districts to be reimbursed for testing and remediation by the state Department of Environmental Conservation with funds set aside for clean water infrastructure projects.
Under the measure, testing would need to be conducted on three-year rather than five-year cycles, and all test results would be made available to the public. The bill would go into effect one year after it’s ratified.