by Susan Hellauer
UPDATED 9/12/16 to include latest information on lead-in-water test results from the Nyack School District.
Good news for parents: The kids are back in school.
Even better news: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law on Tuesday that will make New York the first state in the nation to require drinking and cooking water in all of its public schools to be tested for excessive lead levels every five years, starting this year.
Along with this landmark legislation, the NYS Department of Health issued a set of emergency regulations detailing the testing and reporting requirements. They include a drop in the “action level” from the EPA’s standard of 20 parts per billion (ppb), down to 15 ppb, which is the current action level for home-tested drinking water from providers like SUEZ NY (formerly United Water) and Nyack Water Department. (An action level is not a sign of contamination. But it is a signal that immediate actions are required to reduce the detected level of lead.)
Treated water arrives at homes and buildings virtually free of lead, but plumbing fixtures, solder and pipes that predate the mid-’80s (when lead in potable water applications was outlawed) can leach lead into water. Even “lead-free”-labeled brass faucets and water fountain fixtures predating 2011 can contain up to 8 percent lead.
A school district tests for lead and comes clean
As school began, Rockland County’s Nyack School District posted on its website a letter signed by Superintendent James Montesano summarizing the results of a complete round of lead-in-water testing, along with remediation and retesting in all of its five schools, the administration building and the old high school.
Spurred by the 2014 (and continuing) lead contamination tragedy of Flint, Michigan, along with pressure from parents, the NSD began the testing last spring. More than 200 samples were taken and tested, from all drinking fountains, kitchen sinks, classroom sinks, and any other sinks known to be used for water consumption. Five sinks—three at Liberty Elementary, one at Valley Cottage Elementary, and one at the Hilltop Administration Building—measured slightly above the EPA limit of 20 ppb, an acceptable level before Cuomo signed off on the new, more stringent rules. One sink, long unused, was disconnected. The rest were fitted with filters, retested, and came in under the threshold.
Training, testing, telling
Although there is no federal requirement for lead-in-water testing in schools, the Nyack School District followed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Technical Guidance protocol “3T’s [Training, Testing, Telling] for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools: Revised Technical Guidelines.” According to Montesano, “water was taken early in the morning before our schools opened to ensure that we took initial, first draw samples before the water had a chance to circulate through the plumbing system, thereby providing ‘worst case’ results.”
Schools, especially buildings predating 1986, face a greater challenge than homes do in maintaining lead-free drinking water because of weekend and holiday stagnation in pipes. Even so, the EPA’s “3T’s” guidelines, as well as the new NYS protocols, state that water should be tested after being motionless in pipes for no less than 8 hours, but no longer than 18 hours. How much lead could be in that first Monday-morning water-fountain drink? Looks like we’ll never know.
Lead poisoning: permanent devastation
Public health officials, like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), now believe that there is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain and other physical damage, as well as behavioral problems and lowered IQ. Lead exposure is most dangerous for small children and pregnant women. It can inhabit a victim’s bones, and emerge later in life to do additional harm.
Lead dust, contaminated soil, and especially peeling lead paint in old buildings, have been the most frequently cited causes of lead poisoning in children. But lead in drinking water is increasingly being seen as a significant source.
The lead industry has known about lead’s poisonous potential since at least the early twentieth century. When municipalities began legislating against lead in potable-water plumbing in the mid 1920s, the lead industry organized to form a lobbying group to discourage these legal restrictions and to encourage governments to mandate the use of lead in plumbing. Midwestern cities like Milwaukee are now paying the price for such 20th-century plumbing code requirements.
How to test for lead
The Nyack School District enlisted a county-wide agency—Rockland BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services)—to carry out the lead-in-water testing for its schools. BOCES is best known for delivering special needs education, career and technical training for teens and adults, and professional education for teachers. But they also provide management support services to keep schools safe, business offices working efficiently, and schools effectively communicating.
BOCES Health, Safety & Security Services, headed by John Gulino, carries out testing and training for school districts on all sorts of health compliance issues, and has been working on lead testing and remediation strategies throughout the county since last spring. Gulino and technician Dawn Izenberg mapped each of the Nyack School District’s buildings, collected early-morning samples in accordance with EPA “3T’s” guidelines, and sent them to an independent lab for evaluation.
Coping with new school lead-in-water legislation
After their “3T’s”— trained-technician testing and telling—and the necessary remediation and retesting, how will the Nyack School District cope with the new, more stringent threshold for lead in school water?
Signed 9/6/16. Effective immediately.
Applies only to public schools, pre-K through grade 12, and not to private or religious schools.
Mandates testing every 5 years.
Sets an “action level” of 15 ppb (parts per billion) for remediation.
Violations reported to local DOH immediately; in writing to parents within 10 business days.
The EPA’s “3T’s for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools “ is guide for testing.
First round of testing in all schools to be completed by October 31, 2016.
Requires record keeping of test results and remediations, to be reported to the state.
BOCES’ John Gulino said it’s all a matter of timing. “This bill just got signed within the last 24 hours, and we’re still trying to get our arms around the new regulations. Once we’ve determined what the impact will be, we’ll communicate with all of our districts,” Gulino said in a phone conversation on Wednesday,
Gulino pointed out that Rockland County schools were compelled to act last spring given the tremendous pressure from parents and the community. “In an effort to get ahead of the curve, we used the best practices available at the time, while knowing that a bill like this was coming,” he said.
Superintendent Montesano added via email that “our District has complied and will continue to comply with all State and Federal laws and regulations. We do not anticipate this new legislation having a significant impact on our District’s previous test results; however, we will be prepared to conduct further testing, if necessary. We support all regulations that will protect the health and safety of our students and staff,” said Montesano.
The recent tests of Nyack School District water fall within the acceptable date range for the new NYS law and should not have to be repeated. Any outlet that now exceeds the new lead standard should be removed from service, remediated, retested and parents notified in writing.
On Monday, September 12th, the Nyack School District released a letter from Supt. Montesano, revealing that two sinks, one at Liberty Elementary and one at Nyack Middle School, slightly exceed the 15 ppb threshold set in the new state law. They have been taken offline and “will remain shut down until the remediation protocol has been successfully completed,” says Montesano.
Wisconsin’s desperate struggle with widespread lead contamination.
Sustainable Saturday looks at lead in drinking water.
Sustainable Saturdays, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.