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Enviroscience Consultants

New standards will require school districts in New York state to test for lead in water. File photo

By Rebecca Anzel

Drinking water in public schools across the state will soon conclude testing for lead contamination. Legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in September makes New York the first state to mandate such testing.

The law established a level of lead allowed in drinking water, initial and future testing requirements for schools and deadlines for notifying parents and staff of results.

“These rigorous new protections for New York’s children include the toughest lead contamination testing standards in the nation and provide clear guidance to schools on when and how they should test their water,” Cuomo said in a press release.

Schools are more likely to have raised lead levels because intermittent use of water causes extended water contact with plumbing fixtures. Those installed before 1986, when federal laws were passed to restrict the amount of lead allowed in materials, might have a higher amount of lead.

“We know how harmful lead can be to the health and well-being of young children, and that’s why the Senate insisted on testing school water for lead,” state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a statement. “As a result, New York becomes the first state in the nation to perform this testing and protect millions of its students from potential health risks.”

Lead consumption by children is especially harmful because behavioral and physical effects, such as brain damage and reduced IQ, happen at lower levels of exposure, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Even low levels of lead exposure can cause hearing loss, nervous system damage and learning disabilities.

“We know how harmful lead can be to the health and well-being of young children, and that’s why the Senate insisted on testing school water for lead.”

—John Flanagan

In adults, lead can cause damage to the reproductive system, kidneys and cardiovascular system.

The new law required schools teaching children in prekindergarten through fifth grade to test drinking water by Sept. 30 and schools with children from grades six through 12 to complete testing by the end of October.

This affects in excess of 700 school districts and 37 BOCES locations in the state, consisting of more than 5,000 school buildings, according to the state. Private schools are exempt from this testing.

Any lead level exceeding 15 micrograms per liter must be reported by the school to the local health department within one business day. Schools are also mandated to share the test results with parents and staff in writing and to publish a list of lead-free buildings on their websites.

Glenn Neuschwender, president of Enviroscience Consultants, a Ronkonkoma-based environmental consulting firm, said to a certain extent, these deadlines are a challenge, especially those pertaining to the test results.

“I’ve been speaking to the county health department — they’re currently not prepared to receive that data,” Neuschwender said in a phone interview. “The same would go for the state Department of Health. They’re not currently prepared to start receiving data yet, but they’ve told me that they will be within the coming weeks.”

The cost of a lead analysis ranges from $20 to $75 per sample and must be conducted by a laboratory approved by the Environmental Laboratory Approval Program. Long Island Analytical Laboratories in Holbrook and Pace Analytical Services in Melville are two approved labs, according to the state Department of Health.

If the level of lead in a sample exceeds what the law allows, the school is required to prohibit the use of that faucet until further testing shows the issue is rectified. The law also requires schools to conduct testing every five years.

“The law is certainly, I would say, a work in progress,” Neuschwender said. “The law is very short in discussing remediation — it’s more specific to sampling and action-level objectives — so we expect to see some clarification on the remediation side of things as the law is revised.”

Port Jefferson school district conducted voluntary testing of fixtures throughout the district this summer before Cuomo signed the law, and found small amounts of lead in nine locations. All nine fixtures have been replaced, according to Fred Koelbel, district plant facilities administrator.

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File photo by Elana Glowatz

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.