These 88 NJ schools had lead in water — ‘Poland Springs’ not real fix, activists say
Reported and written by David Matthau and Adam Hochron
A new report by Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center calls for comprehensive action on testing and remediating lead-contaminated drinking water in schools and communities across the Garden State.
The report, which gives New Jersey a grade of C-, also documents the health effects of exposure to lead, especially in children.
“We can’t sit on our hands and we can’t point to a Poland Springs strategy of thou shalt only drink bottled water,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
After a growing number of New Jersey districts last year began revealing that some of their drinking water was contaminated with lead, the state Department of Education began requiring regular testing and reporting of those results to the state.
Since then, at least 30 districts have reported high levels of lead in 88 school buildings, according to records obtained by New Jersey 101.5. This number includes both public and private schools.
The high levels were found in water fountains, kitchen sinks used for cooking as well as bathroom sinks and wash basins.
But the exact number of schools with lead contamination is even higher.
Some districts that reported high levels of lead last year were not accounted for in the records obtained by New Jersey 101.5 through a request under the state’s Open Public Records Act because those test results came before the new reporting rule.
The new regulations went into effect in July. Six months later, more than 20 districts reported high lead levels.
“We need to have a remediation strategy that looks to replace lead service pipes, to ensure our kids in school aren’t being poisoned,” said O’Malley.
He pointed out the American Academy of Pediatrics has determined there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
“Lead not only does not have a safe level, but small amounts of lead, whether it be in a home or a school directly impacts the IQ of our children,” he said.
O’Malley also stressed the current lead testing level in the state “is not codified.”
In some cases, the lead test results from New Jersey schools showed lead levels only slightly above the safe limit of 15 parts per billion, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In other cases, testing showed results well above the safe limits.
In addition to the testing results, the reports to the state also note the remediation steps that were taken. This can include larger scale plumbing projects, as well as signs warning that the water should not be consumed, or that it should only be used for hand washing.
"Lead not only does not have a safe level, but small amounts of lead, whether it be in a home or a school directly impacts the IQ of our children."
While dozens of districts reported their results to the state, there was also an option for schools and districts to apply for waivers exempting them from filing their paperwork. Waivers could be granted if a board of education showed that they had “complied with or exceeded” testing requirements “including any required public notifications, within five years prior to the effective date of the regulation.”
Districts could also file for exemptions if they could prove that they did not use “any drinking water outlets for consumption or food preparation in any of their facilities.”
Records for which districts and schools have applied for waivers and exemptions were not immediately available Thursday.
The Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center report gives New Jersey a C-, while Washington, D.C., gets a grade of B, New York gets a C, Illinois and Massachusetts both get a D and 12 other states get a grade of F.
O’Malley said Jersey gets a C- because “at least we acknowledge we have a problem and we’re doing testing in schools, but we are not taking remediation seriously, we’ve been suffering for way too long with an administration that’s continually raided the lead remediation fund.”
He added the question continually comes up is whether there is “enough money to be able to fix this problem, and the better question to ask is, what is the price of inaction?”
According to O’Malley, more than 200,00 kids in New Jersey have suffered from lead poisoning over the last 17 years, and every year an additional 3,500 kids are being diagnosed with lead poisoning.
The state Department of Health says the incidence of elevated blood levels in children is half what it was 20 years ago, and 20 times more children are being tested.
“The governor’s commitment to protecting and safeguarding children and to ensuring that public health has the resources to carry out this charge are reflected in the governor’s proposed budget,” Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennet said Thursday.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, said it’s “shameful” New Jersey did not fix the lead in drinking water problem in schools a long time ago.
“We cannot continue to use our children as lab animals when it comes to dealing with lead, and we can’t allow our children to become the case studies for the doctors on the impacts of lead to our nervous system and our whole overall human health,” he said.
Tittel stressed the solution is not bottled water or filters.
“What we need to do, is have a long-term fix. We know it’s an $8 billion problem, but we have to do it,” he said.
The Christie administration, however, insists New Jersey continues to be a national leader when it comes to lead.
New Jersey is among 17 states that require universal testing of school children.
Last year, Gov. Chris Christie approved $10 million for lead remediation levels. In this year’s proposed budget, the administration is calling for $20 million for lead remediation assistance for low- and moderate-income households.
Officials also point out that the most common source of lead poisoning is not water, but paint in homes built before 1978.
In Trenton Thursday, the Assembly passed legislation that calls for school districts and nonpublic schools to be reimbursed for the cost of testing school drinking water for lead.
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano D-Union, one of the prime sponsors of the bill, said “lead testing is critical to maintaining a healthy school environment.”
“In the last year, many schools have had to perform more comprehensive tests for lead, which was not originally calculated in their budget. The state should provide additional funding support for lead testing to help our schools in this time of need.”
Schools that reported lead contamination
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You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.
Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com