ALBANY, NY – Amid a growing flood of reports of lead in school drinking water around the state and the country, a coalition of New York public health, environment, and healthy schools advocacy groups are calling on state government leaders to take action. Lead is a major health hazard, especially for young children. It has been found in schools in Binghamton and Ithaca, and across the country in Los Angeles and Baltimore. Lead is a threat to all children: there are no safe levels. The groups called on state lawmakers and the governor to enact legislation before the legislative session ends next month that would require all schools to test for lead contamination and provide funds to help schools pay for testing and remediation. The groups offered a five-point action plan that they want addressed:
Mandate that all schools test their water for lead and copper contamination at the tap.
Provide safe drinking water if elevated lead levels are in school drinking and cooking water.
Tell test results to parents, teachers quickly.
Funding to pay for remediation such as filters or new pipes.
Annual report from school water testing by the state Department of Health.
“As parents, teachers, and responsible adults who care about children, we believe there are critical steps New York must take to make sure all our children are safe from toxic hazards in all schools and child care facilities,” said Claire Barnett, executive director of the Albany-based Healthy Schools Network. “We care about the healthy development of children, and that includes healthful school meals with clean and safe drinking water in our schools. We applaud all the local schools that are testing and releasing the results.”
“Emergencies are popping up around the state and the country. It’s a wake-up call for New York policy makers to act and to act quickly,” said New York League of Conservation Voters Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Christopher Goeken. “Contaminated water supplies must be identified and fixed.” “There’s simply no reason for children to be exposed to lead in the drinking water and food prepared at their schools,” said Jaqi Cohen, NYPIRG’s New York City Regional Coordinator. “Testing may present us with inconvenient information about school water quality, but we need to know the facts and we all have a vested interest in preventing the poisoning of children by their schools.”
“If you poison someone and they die or are harmed you can be charged with a crime, except of course if you poison a child with lead through the water they drink at school,” explained Cecil Corbin-Mark deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “New York State by adopting our five point plan can show the country what needs to be done to eliminate lead from school drinking water. The last thing any child needs, especially those from low-wealth communities or communities-of-color where there are so many health disparities, is to be poisoned with lead at school that is just criminal.”
Right now, there is a patchwork quilt of testing. Most schools in New York get drinking water from either municipal or private (i.e. well water) systems. Under federal and state rules, including the Clean Water Act, schools on municipal systems do not need to test at the tap. Schools participating in the federal school meals program must also have regular kitchen inspections, which include sanitary conditions but not testing the kitchen water for lead and copper. Drinking water quality testing is not consistent across all schools and the results are difficult to find. There is also no single statewide report at this point that would help determine the level of remediation work needed statewide.
The Coalition agreed that impacts on all children need to be reviewed, monitored and transparently available, whether they are learning in public, private or charter schools, or childcare centers. This could include the development of a state approved list of certified testers.
“Young children are the most susceptible to the hazards of lead poisoning,” explained Kathy Curtis, director of Clean and Healthy New York. “We fight for clean environments for our children because we don’t want the places they must go for their education to be making them sick. What a terrible outcome that would be.”
In NYS, public school Building Condition Surveys are conducted once every five years. They require some identification of possible hazards – such as lead pipes used to deliver water to school buildings — but the state lacks a comprehensive plan for testing all drinking water at the tap and addressing contaminants. It even lacks a way to make the results of current tests readily available to the community.
The federal government banned most uses of lead-based paint in 1977. In 1986, it banned lead pipe and solder in plumbing that carried potable water. And most lead in gasoline was phased out in the 1980s. These measures lead to a decline in the national rates of lead poisoning, but stubbornly high rates of lead poisoning still persist in our urban areas and in communities with high concentrations of children-of-color and or low wealth. Unfortunately, the government never actually dealt with the 3 million tons of old lead that lines the walls and piping fixtures of millions of housing units and thousands of schools.
“Schools should be a safe haven for our students, and it is incumbent upon the state to ensure children’s safety and well-being in all matters of public health,” said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale.
“Adopting this commonsense plan is simply wise public policy.” Judy Braiman, President, Empire State Consumer Project, said: “We have been working on lead and children’s issues for decades. This spring I contacted 18 districts in Monroe County. Twelve of the 18 had reports of elevated lead in school drinking water. Six didn’t have their results yet. One tap measured over 480ppb.
This is real and it must be fixed.” Dr. Ralph Spezio, Ed.D. said: “As the former long-time principal of School 17 in Rochester, I know too well the devastating effects of bone-crunching poverty on the young children who come to school wanting to learn and beat the odds that being poor has placed on them. Public schools are the last place that children should risk being poisoned by brain impairing, IQ robbing lead in the drinking water. New York must step up and require that school drinking water supplies are tested and safe for our children.”
Building Condition Surveys:
EPA Guidance for Drinking Water and Lead: