hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial December 2016/January 2017



Tests show wide scope of school lead hazard

Woody Allen famously said that showing up accounts for 80 percent of success in life.
And when it comes to finding contamination in our drinking water, it seems at least 80 percent of success depends on testing the water.

Our region learned this lesson rather painfully over the past two years with the discovery of the industrial chemical PFOA in the water supplies of Hoosick Falls and several other communities. And now we’re learning it again with the discovery of lead in the tap water at many area schools.
As a story in this month’s issue details, school districts across eastern New York have lately been receiving the results of new state-mandated lead testing. As of late November, about 30 districts across Rensselaer, Washington, Saratoga and Warren counties had learned at least some of their water taps were dispensing lead at unsafe levels. Many other districts were still awaiting test results.

School officials point out that many of the fixtures with unsafe lead levels weren’t being used for drinking or cooking. The state’s new law requires testing of every tap in every public school, even if the water is only used for washing buses.

But in a large majority of school districts, at least one water fountain or sink used for human consumption did have lead in concentrations above the federal safety standard of 15 parts per billion. Some 18 drinking-water fixtures had unsafe lead levels in the Saratoga Springs school district; so did 18 in South Glens Falls, 14 in Cambridge, five in Salem and four in Ballston Spa, to name a few. In some of these cases, tests found lead in concentrations several times the 15 ppb safety limit.

The health hazards posed by lead have been known for decades, and young children face the greatest risk from exposure to this toxic heavy metal, which can cause brain damage, impaired intellectual development and other problems. Because of these risks, the federal government banned the use of lead-based paint nearly 40 years ago and soon phased out leaded gasoline as well.

So why are we only now discovering lead in the drinking water of our schools? The short answer is that no one went looking for it.

Lead pipes haven’t been used for new water lines since the 1940s, and New York and other states banned the use of lead solder in plumbing starting in the 1980s. Lead solder and even lead pipes might still be in place at some old school buildings, but these probably aren’t the most common source of contamination at area schools.

Instead, it turns out that until quite recently, nearly all faucets and water fountains were made of brass that contained up to 8 percent lead. Before being sold, these fixtures were tested to make sure they didn’t leach more than 11 ppb of lead into drinking water. But it seems the tests didn’t account for the variety of water in the real world, some of which is more corrosive or is disinfected with chemicals that make it more likely to leach lead from the brass fixtures.

The problem came to light rather dramatically about a decade ago when, according to an article in Science News magazine, tests found unsafe levels of lead in every fountain and faucet at a brand-new $100 million building at the University of North Carolina. As a result of that case and others, new standards beginning in 2014 require fixtures with no more than 0.25 percent lead.
At least New York is now testing to determine the extent of the problem in its schools. It’s a safe bet that schools in Vermont and Massachusetts will soon discover they have a similar problem – if anyone shows up to test for it.



Work for the Observer!