About 20 percent of the Long Island school districts that said they tested for lead in water at their schools reported finding the metal at levels that caused them to shut down fountains and replace fixtures, according to a Newsday/News 12 Long Island survey.
In the wake of elevated lead levels in the Flint, Michigan, public water supply and in water at schools in Newark, 102 districts took steps on their own to test for lead, the survey found, and 21 reported test results that led them to make remediation efforts.
Lead is not safe for children and can lead to harmful health effects.
Some districts found the elevated levels in work sinks or other areas not used by children, but others reported detecting such levels of lead in water fountains as well.
The districts with results high enough to take action are Bayport-Blue Point, Carle Place, Commack, East Rockaway, Elwood, Jericho, Locust Valley, Malverne, North Bellmore, Northport-East Northport, Oceanside, Plainview-Old Bethpage, Port Washington, Riverhead, Syosset, Valley Stream 13, Valley Stream 24, Valley Stream 30, Valley Stream Central, Wantagh and Westbury.
“Health and safety issues are always paramount to us,” said Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Lorna Lewis, who also is president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. “We believe that if there is a health hazard, we want to know about it and do something about it immediately.”
The recent water testing by Long Island schools comes as local, state and federal officials have urged educators to be more vigilant in testing for the metal.
“I had read about Flint and I jumped on it with my board of education immediately — we were one of the first to get our schools tested,” said Peter Scordo, superintendent of the Elwood district. “We were fortunate not to have a lot of exposure, but wherever we had it we dealt with it immediately.”
In the past, a school in New York State did not have to test for lead unless it had its own water supply and was not on a public water system. But the State Legislature late Friday adopted a bill that now requires mandatory testing.
Public water suppliers must test for lead and take action to reduce it if the levels go above 15 parts per billion. But in schools, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends remediation be taken if a sample exceeds 20 parts per billion of lead in water.
Ronkonkoma-based Enviroscience Consultants, which has tested between 150 and 200 school buildings on Long Island so far, counts any fixture that measures over 15 parts per billion of lead as an exceedance, while JC Broderick & Associates in Hauppauge, which has tested more than 400 school buildings on Long Island, counts the 20 parts per billion measure as an exceedance. Long Island districts largely have used one of those two companies for the testing.
No safe level
There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, who “can have health effects when exposed to even the lowest levels of lead,” according to a May 25 letter from the regional director of the EPA that was shared with districts. Drinking water could account for 20 percent or more of the total amount of lead to which a person is exposed, the letter stated.
Elevated blood lead levels can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, poor classroom performance, and reduced IQ and attention spans in children, who are more susceptible to the harmful effects of the metal than adults because their bodies still are developing, according to the EPA.
But the presence of lead in water in school buildings does not necessarily indicate that every child who has consumed the water faces a health threat, experts said.
“It doesn’t mean that anybody who’s exposed to lead — because we’re all exposed to it — is going to have a health problem,” Suffolk County Department of Health Services Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said. “It’s a relative risk kind of situation.”
The Newsday/News12 survey found that 102 districts began the lead testing process in the wake of the Flint and Newark findings. Many districts said they are planning to increase routine testing in schools — even if no state legislation is passed into law.
Of the 105 districts that responded to the Newsday/News 12 survey, which began in early May, 66 said they had either tested their water fixtures for lead and were awaiting results, or they are planning to test. Another 36 districts said they had tested and have results in hand. Three districts — Deer Park, New Suffolk and Fire Island — said they do not plan to test their fixtures for lead, and 19 did not respond.
Deer Park reported it uses only filtered or bottled water. Fire Island said it switched to bottled water after superstorm Sandy and New Suffolk said it provides water coolers for its students.
Some districts said they test annually for lead and some reported that they do not conduct regular testing, but added tests this past year and plan to continue in the future. The Franklin Square district, for example, said it is developing a protocol for biannual testing of all drinking fountains. Valley Stream’s 24 schools, which initially found five samples above the guideline, retested in May and “everything was fine,” according to their survey response.
Water samples at schools should be taken first thing in the morning, after water has sat in the fixture overnight, to find the highest possible levels of lead contamination, according to the EPA.
“If you’re the first kid to drink out of that fountain after it sat for eight hours, that’s the worst-case scenario,” said Enviroscience president and chief executive Glenn Neuschwender.
The presence of lead in a school does not mean it is in the public water supply. The metal can get into water at school buildings by leaching from pipes and fittings in water fixtures, such as drinking fountains and sinks.
Neuschwender said his company has found that 90 percent to 95 percent of the time, fixtures are the source of lead contamination.
But even if water from a fixture tests high, it doesn’t mean that those same high levels of lead are being delivered in the water throughout the day, Tomarken said.
“If water sits for six hours or longer and then you open up a tap, the initial rush of water is going to potentially have a higher level [of lead] than if you let it run for 20 to 30 seconds,” he said. “It’s an unknown quantity in terms of how much would any particular child be exposed to and what would be their risk.”
In addition, there are many different ways children are exposed to lead — including inhalation and ingestion of dust containing the metal, he said. Parents who remain concerned about their children’s potential exposure should have their blood tested for lead, he said.
“We think that there’s a perspective that has to be maintained about some of these results from the schools,” Tomarken said. “People need to discuss them with their personal physicians, and if they’re concerned, they want to have testing.”
Parent ‘shocked,’ backs bill
East Northport parent Rachel Friedman said she was “shocked” when she learned that a water fountain at one of her two sons’ schools, East Northport Middle School, had lead levels at 19.8 parts per billion.
Friedman said she supports a bill passed late Friday that requires mandatory testing at the tap in schools.
“The most important thing is making sure this problem is corrected if there is a problem in your school district because when it comes right down to it — it is the kids who will be suffering,” she said.
The bill, backed by the New York League of Conservation Voters, calls for informing parents and teachers of test results, providing state funds for testing and remediation and requiring the state Department of Health to create an annual report based on these tests.
“No child or school employee should ever be put in jeopardy by tainted water in their school. Testing for lead in drinking water will ensure we jump-start the process of identifying and eliminating such a serious health crisis,” said state Sen. Carl L. Marcellino (R-Syosset), chairman of the Senate Education Committee and co-sponsor of the legislation.
With Michael R. Ebert and Michael Gormley