Lead in water was common in city schools

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DOE says remediation of outlets was immediate


  • Two classroom water fountains at P.S. 166 The Richard Rodgers School on West 89th Street had elevated lead levels, including one several times the recommended action level. Photo: Adam Fagen, via flickr

  • P.S. 163 Alfred E. Smith on West 97th Street was among the Upper West Side schools with drinking fountains with elevated lead results. Photo: NYC Department of Education


Department of Education testing showed that drinking water in a number of Upper West Side schools, including P.S. 165 Robert E. Simon and P.S. 166 The Richard Rodgers School, contained lead at concentrations many times greater than state-mandated action levels for the toxic metal during the last school year.

The Department of Education completed lead testing on drinking and cooking water outlets in every public school in the city during the 2016-2017 school year. Results showed that 83 percent of school buildings had at least one water sample with lead levels above the action level of 15 parts per billion. Elevated lead levels were found in roughly 8 percent of all samples.

After testing, the DOE sent letters notifying parents and staff of their individual school’s results. Results for each building were made available on schools’ individual websites, but a single, comprehensive database of results for each outlet tested in every school was not made available by the DOE until recently, following a freedom of information law request filed by Straus News.

The DOE’s remediation protocol calls for outlets with elevated lead results to be immediately removed from service and replaced. Outlets are not returned to service until follow-up testing shows that lead levels are below the 15 ppb action level.

“Many of the elevated water samples came from fixtures that are not typically used for drinking, including bathrooms, slop sinks, and laboratories,” read one DOE letter to parents and staff. Faucet-level test results, however, show that elevated samples were found in drinking fountains at many schools.

Results from a water fountain in a play area at P.S. 165 Robert E. Simon on West 109th Street showed lead at a level of 432 ppb, nearly 30 times greater than the 15 ppb action level.

At P.S. 166 The Richard Rodgers School on West 89th Street, which serves about 600 children in kindergarten to fifth grade, two classroom water fountains had elevated lead levels, including one with results of 134 ppb. Six other outlets at the school had elevated sample results as well, five of them cold water faucets in classrooms and one a cold water faucet in an office. Testing was performed on January 14 of this year and the elevated outlets were taken out of service on January 27 for remediation.

On August 21, the DOE notified P.S. 166 parents and staff that remediation had been completed and retests showed all previously elevated outlets now had results below the 15 ppb action level. The DOE said it would continue to flush the school’s water systems on Monday mornings to remove stagnant water “[o]ut of an abundance of caution”.

Other Upper West Side schools that had drinking fountains with elevated results include P.S. 163 Alfred E. Smith on West 97th Street and P.S. 145 The Bloomingdale School on West 105th Street.

A higher proportion of elevated results in a given building did not necessarily correlate with higher lead levels in the school’s individual water outlets. For example, only two of the 176 samples tested at P.S. 087 William Sherman on West 78th Street turned up elevated results, but one was a cold water faucet in a first floor classroom with test results of 1,191 ppb, nearly 80 times greater than the action level.

DOE Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth A. Rose wrote in an April 2017 letter to families and staff that the department’s testing “demonstrates that we do not have any systemic issues with water in our school buildings and our remediation protocol is effective.” Lead poisoning rates among New York City children have declined in recent years, and according to the DOE there has never been a known case of lead poisoning due to water in city schools.

The DOE has said that elevated lead levels found during testing are not necessarily reflective of actual lead levels students and staff are likely to encounter during the day, as testing was performed on water that had sat in pipes overnight. The DOE says that lead levels drop sharply after faucets are first used each day and stagnant water is cleared from the pipes.

Lead enters drinking water primarily through the corrosion of lead plumbing materials, which are now banned but were once widely used. For adults, exposure to lead over time can result in a number of harmful effects, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney disease. Young children, who absorb ingested lead at a higher rate than adults, are particularly susceptible to harmful effects of lead exposure, which can have permanent negative impacts on the development of the brain and nervous system.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emphasizes that there is no safe level of lead exposure. The 15 ppb action level is not a health-based benchmark; rather, it is an action level for implementing treatment techniques aimed at reducing lead levels at the tap. According to the World Health Organization, “There appears to be no threshold level below which lead causes no injury to the developing human brain.”

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