After the highly publicized discovery of lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, Port Jefferson School District decided not to leave the safety of its students and staff to chance.
The district employed Ronkonkoma-based environmental consulting firm Enviroscience Consultants Inc. to conduct a district-wide test for lead in drinking water this summer. The firm released results of the testing in a report dated June 28.
A total of 126 water fixtures were tested across Edna Louise Spear Elementary, Port Jefferson Middle School and Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. Traces of lead large enough to require action were found in nine locations, according to the report.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t a reaction starting essentially with Flint, Michigan. But our response to it is going to be proactive. We have to make sure that there isn’t any danger while [students are] at school.” — Paul Casciano
At the middle school, a first-floor water fountain, two sinks in science labs and a kitchen sink had lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” threshold for lead in water is 20 parts per billion, as listed in in its 2006 guide entitled “3T’s for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools.” At the high school, sinks in the third-floor faculty bathroom, an athletic coaching office and a science lab, as well as a spigot in an athletic office and a water fountain in a wood shop, showed lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion. All nine fixtures have been removed and either replaced or will be replaced, according to District Facilities Administrator Fred Koelbel.
In water sources like sinks in science labs or bathrooms, school districts are permitted to note with a sign that the water shouldn’t be used for drinking, but Port Jefferson opted to remove such fixtures anyway.
“The district response here is at the top of the curve,” Enviroscience Consultants President Glenn Neuschwender said in an interview to the district’s choice to adhere to stricter standards than those laid out by the EPA, and their decision to opt for removal of the fixtures instead of signs. “This board has taken the highest level of conservatism when it comes to protecting the kids.”
Neuschwender stressed levels found in Port Jefferson are not remotely close to those found in places like Flint and fall below some action-required thresholds other than the EPA. Still, he suggested concerned parents take action.
“You have to have a discussion with your child,” he said. “Do you use that fountain? If they don’t, the discussion is kind of over. If they say ‘yeah, I use it from time to time,’ then the only sure way to find out if your child has been impacted is to have a blood-lead test.”
According to the report, lead can impact every organ of the human body, though it is most harmful for the central nervous system. Low levels can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems, among other problems. High levels can result in neurological problems or even death.
Koelbel said a comprehensive test on this level had not been conducted in recent years though concerns in 1985 prompted the district to replace fixtures at the elementary school. None of the locations tested at Edna Louise Spear yielded results that required action.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Paul Casciano said he understands parents’ concerns, though the district plans to be upfront and forthright about its findings and subsequent action.
“We feel that we’re being more cautious, replacing sinks as opposed to putting up a sign,” he said. “Obviously all of the lead testing is a reaction so I won’t say we’re proactive. We wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t a reaction starting essentially with Flint, Michigan. But our response to it is going to be proactive. We have to make sure that there isn’t any danger while they’re at school.”
Casciano called the replacements an unanticipated but not prohibitive cost.
“Anything that protects the safety of students is worth the expense,” he said.
Koelbel said the district is planning to test the replaced fixtures in the coming weeks, though no plans currently exist for a second comprehensive, districtwide test.
He added that the district is in the process of replacing a few drinking fountains each year with filtered water stations that contain a reservoir to chill water and are designed to make filling bottles easier. Four of the stations already exist in the district.
This version was updated to correct the EPA’s action-level threshold for lead in water.