Student Well-Being

After Flint, New Scrutiny of Schools’ Drinking Water

By Denisa R. Superville — March 21, 2016 4 min read
Valerie Wilson, school business administrator for the Newark Public Schools system, speaks at a news conference about recent findings that drinking water in Newark schools have excessive lead levels. Standing with Wilson are Cristopher Cerf, left, Superintendent of Newark Public Schools, and Anthony Ambrose, acting director of public safety for Newark.

The revelation this month that drinking water in nearly half the 67 schools in Newark, N.J., have lead levels exceeding national guidelines has brought new concerns about testing requirements for such contaminants and about whether similar discoveries may emerge elsewhere, particularly in urban districts where buildings tend to be older.

Since the water crisis in Flint, Mich., thrust lead poisoning back into the national spotlight, higher-than-acceptable lead levels also have been reported in schools in Ithaca and Binghamton, N.Y., and in Howell, Mich. The school systems in Baltimore and Camden, N.J., are still spending thousands of dollars annually on bottled water years after officials in those cities discovered lead in the water.

Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a Washington-based organization that focuses on modernizing public school buildings, said she would not be surprised if elevated lead levels continue to be reported elsewhere.

“This is what it looks like to underinvest in school infrastructure,” Filardo said. “This is what is happening all over the U.S., and, for the most part, districts feel like they don’t have the funds to take care of [these] hazardous materials.”

The materials that are now causing alarm were once ubiquitous in construction: lead in plumbing and paint; asbestos in plaster; polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, in lighting, Filardo said.

“They are particularly detrimental in our older cities, where still, for the most part, we have many children from low-income communities and families,” she said.

There is no acceptable level of lead exposure, and because children’s bodies are still developing, they are most at risk, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Lead exposure can damage young children’s brains and has been linked to low IQ, hearing impairment, low attention span, and behavioral problems.

Testing Not Always Required

School districts are not required to annually test their drinking water for lead if they use their city’s water source. A common source of lead-tainted water in schools is from leaching of old lead pipes in the schools or the solder used to weld pipes together.

In Newark, the New Jersey environmental-protection department said the city’s drinking water was safe, signaling that school buildings’ plumbing may be to blame.

The Center for Green Schools estimated in a 2013 report that it would take about $271 billion to bring school buildings up to code. To meet all the education, health, and safety requirements now demanded of schools, about $542 billion would need to be spent, the organization said. And in a survey of public schools in 2012-13, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average age of the main instructional school building was 44.

The absence of federal funding for school infrastructure is one reason many districts struggle with aging and deteriorating buildings, Filardo said. The bulk of school construction money comes from state and local sources, and 12 states, including Michigan, have no funding mechanism for infrastructure, meaning that districts have to rely on voter-approved local bond measures, Filardo said.

Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, an environmental-advocacy group, said there should be mandatory annual testing for lead and other contaminants in schools’ water supplies.

“There needs to be a program and long-term funding to remediate old lead pipes, whether they are in the streets or in schools,” Tittel said.

Newark’s Response

Officials in the Newark district and the state environmental agency first publicly disclosed March 9 that annual tests of water samples showed that lead levels at water sources in 30 of the district’s schools were higher than 15 parts-per-billion, the level at which the federal EPA requires corrective action.

The district promptly shut off water fountains in those schools and switched to bottled water. But a new analysis of water samples that were taken from 2012 to 2015 showed a similar occurrence, with about 12 percent of the samples showing elevated lead levels during those years.

Chris Cerf, Newark’s superintendent, said last week that documentary evidence suggested the district had been taking lead-remediation measures—such as replacing faucets and using water filters—at least since 2004. And a widely circulated internal memo showed that in 2014, principals, head custodians, building managers, and nutrition staff were instructed to flush pipes to reduce lead contamination.

The district and the city last week began offering free lead testing to about 17,000 students. The state’s environmental agency said “every faucet or fountain in a school building where people can take a drink of water and every food preparation sink,” will be tested. The district has been posting school-level test results on its website.

And district leaders are working with environmental officials and engineering companies to devise a long-term solution.

The Sierra Club’s Tittel said the Flint water crisis may prove to have a silver lining: It has sparked a greater awareness of the dangers of lead-tainted water, an urgency for more proactive and preventative measures, and a demand for openness with the public.

In New York City, officials say drinking water is of the “highest quality” and meets state and federal guidelines. In 2004, the city started to replace all lead service lines in city-owned buildings, including schools, according to Amy Spitalnick, a city spokeswoman.

In Binghamton, N.Y., Superintendent Marion Martinez asked to review lead tests that had been conducted in 2013, but had had no recommendations attached.

After seeing the results had shown elevated lead levels in 50 water sources, including seven that supplied drinking water, the district shut off water in some areas, retested some locations, and replaced water filters. Martinez also informed the public.

Education Week Librarian Holly Peele provided research assistance on this story.
A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2016 edition of Education Week as After Flint Crisis, New Scrutiny of Schools’ Drinking Water

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