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


News & Issues December 2016-January 2017


Tests find lead in schools’ water

New state law sends N.Y. districts scrambling to halt exposure to toxin


Contributing writer



Five fountains at Salem Central School were removed from service this fall after water tests revealed lead in unsafe concentrations. George Bouret photo

The scene at Salem Central School has become a common one this fall around eastern New York: Five water fountains at the school have been taken out of service after tests showed they were dispensing water with unsafe levels of lead.

Salem was among the first wave of school districts in the region to learn the results of lead testing mandated by a new state law that took effect in September. To comply with the law, school officials collected samples from every fountain, faucet and spigot around the Salem school – 198 locations in all – and sent them to a state-approved lab for testing.
By October, Superintendent David Glover posted the results on the district’s Web site: Of 198 water samples collected, 61 contained lead in concentrations above the federal safety standard of 15 parts per billion.

“The majority of the failing fixtures are not for drinking or cooking,” Glover said. “They’re lab sinks and classroom sinks, or showerheads in the locker room. There was nothing in the kitchen.”

But five water fountains -- three in the elementary school, one in the girls’ locker room and one in the athletic field snack shack -- were over the limit and have been shut down, Glover said. Two of the fountains showed lead concentrations exceeding 100 ppb.

Similar situations were being discovered at school districts around the region. By late November, about 30 districts across Rensselaer, Washington, Saratoga and Warren counties had learned that at least some of their water fixtures were dispensing lead at unsafe levels, and many other districts were still awaiting test results.

The problem affected smaller rural schools like Salem as well as larger urban districts. Tests in the Saratoga Springs district, for example, showed 269 water taps with unsafe lead levels – including 18 fixtures used for drinking or cooking – across the district’s six elementary schools and its middle and high schools.


Flint, Hoosick Falls spur action
State legislators say New York’s new law, the first in the nation to require comprehensive lead testing in school buildings, was spurred in part by the crisis involving waterborne lead in Flint, Mich., as well as by the discovery of contamination in various New York communities, including problems with the industrial chemical PFOA in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh.

“In light of the concerns with PFOA, clean drinking water was a real concern,” said Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake.

Woerner said her colleague, Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Binghamton, “started looking into the situation with schools and lead pipes.”

“If schools were on a municipal water system, the water going into the school was tested, but the water inside was not,” Woerner said. “The water at the tap could still have lead, and that could affect schoolchildren.”

Lead is a naturally occurring soft metal that was once widely used in plumbing, both in pipes and in the solder that held the pipes together. However, lead dissolves in water, especially if the water is acidic, corrosive, or low in minerals.

Ingested lead can damage the brain and nervous system, retard physical and mental growth and development, and cause behavioral problems. At high exposures, it can cause kidney and liver damage and even death. Children 6 and younger are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning

Lead pipes are no longer installed in buildings, and New York banned lead solder in 1986. Lead is not a significant groundwater contaminant in New York. When it’s detected in indoor water, it’s likely coming from plumbing fixtures made of metal alloys that include lead.

Lead occurs elsewhere in the environment, including soils, lead-based paint on old buildings, and in some poorly made household objects. According to state Department of Health data, children under 6 in Columbia, Rensselaer and Washington counties are more likely to have elevated blood lead levels than children in Warren and Saratoga counties. Lead accumulates in the body, so it’s important to keep children’s exposure to a minimum.


Scope of testing
New York’s new lead-testing law focuses only on public schools. According to the state Health Department, private schools and charter schools are exempt from the testing requirements, as are schools built after 2014 and those that already have been certified lead-free.

Even before the new law took effect, lead had been discovered in the water at schools in Binghamton, Ithaca, Rochester and on Long Island. Lead also turned up in June in tests of some water fountains at the Chatham school district in Columbia County.

But the state had a “patchwork quilt” of lead testing requirements, according to the office of state Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats. There were no uniform testing schedules or standards, and test results were not easily available to the public.

In early June, Lupardo introduced a bill in the Assembly to remedy that. O’Mara brought the same bill to the Senate.

“Donna raised it in the women’s legislative caucus,” Woerner said. “We thought it made sense.”
Woerner was a co-sponsor in the Assembly. State Sens. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, and Kathleen Marchione, R-Halfmoon, co-sponsored in the Senate.

Although “there was not a lot of lobbying,” Little said, the legislation was supported by the Healthy Schools Network, the New York League of Conservation Voters, New York Public Interest Research Group, ACT for Environmental Justice, New York State United Teachers, and the New York State Parent-Teacher Association. Both the Senate and Assembly passed their versions of the bill on June 17, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the final version on the day it reached his desk, Sept. 6.

Under the new law, elementary schools had a deadline of Sept. 30 to complete their testing. Middle and high schools had to be finished by Oct. 31. Results were due at the state Department of Health on Nov. 11, although because of laboratory backlogs, not all schools had received their results by late November.

If any tap proved to have lead above the limit, the school had to stop using it immediately and make a plan to remove the source of the lead. The deadline for remediation is July 1, 2019.


Tracking test results
The law requires schools to post their lead testing results on their Web sites. The state health and education departments also are supposed to post the information online.

In response to e-mailed questions, officials at the state Health Department said they are compiling the information on lead test results as schools send it in, but that people concerned about a particular school should check directly with the school.

The Times-Union of Albany has been posting results from schools in its coverage area, including Rensselaer and Saratoga counties, on its schools blog, while The Post-Star of Glens Falls has posted reports from schools in Washington and Warren counties on its Web site.

The data so far show that although many schools have at least some outlets with contaminated water, most of these are not sources meant primarily for drinking or cooking. Instead, much of the lead-contaminated water has been drawn from sinks, showerheads, taps for outdoor hoses and other sources not used for drinking.

In the Salem district, the superintendent suggested problems with lead are mainly the result of aging plumbing fixtures.

“Our main building was constructed in 1938,” Glover said. “That’s the bulk of the problem.”
Apart from the five drinking water fountains that were affected, there were also issues with showers in the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, which are in a newer building.

“The problem seems to be with the products that were installed, rather than the water lines,” Glover said.

For the time being, the school has replaced the faulty water fountains with coolers that dispense bottled water. Sinks that failed have been marked with signs specifying the water is for hand washing only. (Lead is not readily absorbed through the skin.) Some outlets may be removed completely and the water lines capped, Glover said.

Other fixtures such as the showerheads will be replaced with lead-free models, although the school has had trouble finding lead-free fixtures that will work as well as the originals, Glover said. The school is considering replacement of the contaminated fountains with new models that have a spigot for filling water bottles.

“The school has adjusted,” Glover said.


Unknown costs
Salem had its water samples tested through a consortium arranged by the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which was able to get bulk discounts on lab fees. The state will reimburse school districts for the costs.

The school is also paying up front for new water fixtures. The school’s custodial staff can do most of the plumbing work, so “we’ll get away with lower costs than some schools,” Glover said.
“But we’re not sure what it will cost the school,” he added. “We’re still working on that.”
The state is supposed to reimburse schools for measures to eliminate the lead.

“What that looks like, we don’t know yet,” Glover said.

No one has an estimate of how much the new law will cost taxpayers.
Little, whose Senate district includes Salem and who is a member of the chamber’s Environmental Conservation Committee, said the repairs will be paid for with state aid.
“We didn’t want to put a high cost on the schools,” she said. “The cost to the state is difficult to estimate.”

Some older schools may have lead pipes or lead solder that will have to be replaced, Little said.
But she stressed that lead “is a proven hazard to young kids.”

“I’m sensitive to unfunded mandates,” Woerner said. “With the tax cap, schools can’t raise the funds for unexpected expenses. The cost will depend on results in the schools. A number of schools in my district have found lead. They’re just starting to develop remediation plans.”