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Lead Found in Water at More Than Half of School Drinking Water Taps in Bergen County

For Immediate Release

Trenton – With the passage of last Thursday’s deadline for school districts to complete testing of lead in school drinking water systems, Environment New Jersey released an analysis of results independently collected from Bergen County, the most populous county in the state.   In Bergen County, with more than 70 school districts, Environment New Jersey was able to compile complete results from 47 districts, showing that 55% of the drinking water outlets in schools showed some level of lead contamination. The New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that there is no safe level of lead in school drinking water.

“Testing for lead in our school’s drinking water should be the first step. This snapshot of testing results from Bergen County show that lead contamination in our schools isn’t isolated to one district. Our kids are facing prevalent exposure to lead,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Schools should have the resources to remove and replace all water outlets that register positive lead results. Testing is the first step and many districts in Bergen hit the state deadline and proactively moved to replace the worst offending outlets. We need to make sure every district can tackle remediation so we can remove lead from our school environments and replace all lead fixtures and service lines.”

The results from Bergen County, a microcosm of New Jersey, are a reflection of a larger issue of lead contamination in school drinking water in the state and country. In Massachusetts, more than half of more than 40,000 tests conducted last year showed some level of lead in water from taps at school. Key state and federal decision-makers are advocating for a more comprehensive and transparent testing, remediation and funding through legislation.

“Bergen County school districts acted quickly to conduct testing and remediation of lead in their schools. These initial results show that we need a more robust response and we need a state and federal action that focuses on both testing and remediation,” said Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38), a member of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee. “We should work to help school districts to get the lead out and replace drinking water outlets that test positive for lead.”

State law does far too little to prevent children’s drinking water from becoming laced with lead at school. Current legislation (S2082/A3539) to ensure a mandated regimen of testing for lead in school systems across the state has passed the Assembly, but hasn’t been heard in the Senate. In a testament to public pressure, Gov. Christie announced the testing program last year and has included funding in last fiscal year’s budget, but testing isn’t codified and remediation isn’t addressed. The legislation’s key provisions require both testing for lead in the drinking water for all school systems, immediate shut-downs of water outlets that fails, notification of the public and transparent test results and required remediation.

“From Flint, Michigan to right here in New Jersey, far too often we have seen the health and safety of our children jeopardized due to outdated water infrastructure,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). “The fact is, this national crisis is a direct result of our failure to adequately invest in our crumbling water infrastructure, particularly in our urban districts. By helping upgrade our water infrastructure and strengthening testing requirements, this legislation will put the health of our children first while creating jobs and investing in our future. I am grateful to Environment New Jersey and other environmental leaders in New Jersey for their continued advocacy and action to protect our children from lead in water.”

The Senate Get the Lead Out of Schools Act, which Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), establishes a grant program to help local schools replace outdated water infrastructure and ensures schools are periodically tested and consistently monitored as part of the Lead and Copper Rule. In April, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) introduced the Lead Free Schools Act, legislation that redirects existing funding and amends the Safe Drinking Water Act to increase testing for lead and contaminants in water at schools, promote transparency by making the results accessible to families online and provide for a competitive grant program for the replacement of old fountains and infrastructure that may be leaching lead and other contaminants.

“No parent should have to fear that their child is being poisoned where they’re supposed to be educated; we must make sure that every school tests their drinking water for lead and takes the steps needed to keep our kids safe.  That’s why I introduced the Lead Free Schools Act earlier this year to help schools test their water and improve their drinking water infrastructure. I thank Environment New Jersey for sounding the alarm on this critical issue,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-5).

“As a County that prides itself as a great place to raise a family and educate children, we have to fix this problem sooner rather than later. In Flint, Michigan, they continue to use bottled water for all their needs and we cannot allow that to happen here. It’s time we demand a solution to start to fix our drinking water infrastructure now,” said Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-38), Chairman of the Assembly Environment Committee.  

New Jersey passed regulations in July 2016 requiring schools to test their outlets for lead, and to post results on the district website.  However, action is only required for outlets that test over the EPA action level of 15 ppb – a standard that contradicts the 1 ppb standard of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The damage that can be done to our children from lead exposure could haunt them for the rest of their lives, and we can stop this today. The ramifications for our state’s education and health care system as we try to address the problems that will follow our children will likely be incredibly costly and burdensome. These are problems that don’t have to become reality,” said Harriet Shugarman, a Wyckoff mother of two older children and an environmental activist.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin. It particularly damaging to children for several reasons.  Children absorb as much as 90 percent more lead into their bodies than adults.  Once ingested, lead flows from the blood to the brain, kidneys, and bones.  Yet children’s organs and bones are immature and more vulnerable, including an incomplete blood-brain barrier.[i]

“Lead in the water at our schools is unacceptable,” said Michael O’Brien, a Tenafly parent. “We’re talking about our children’s health here.”

Medical science now confirms that even low levels of lead can cause permanent damage to our children.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “In children, low levels of [lead] exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.”[ii] More than 24 million children in America will lose IQ points due to low levels of lead. In light of this alarming data, the conclusion of public health experts and agencies is now unanimous:  there is no safe level of lead for our children.[iii]

Lead service lines are the beginning of the problem, they are not the end.  Until the Lead Contamination and Control Act of 1988, many school water fountains were manufactured with lead liners. After the LCCA, water fountains could only legally contain 0.2 percent or less lead in the solder, flux, or storage tank interior surface which may come in contact with drinking water.[iv] And only in 2011 did Congress amend the definition of “lead free” plumbing to “not more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures, a change which only to effect in January 2014.[v] All but the most recently constructed schools and early childhood education programs are likely to have had lead laced through their water delivery systems. 

“Testing for lead in our school’s drinking water should be a no-brainer. The crisis of tackling lead in our school drinking water should be our state’s top infrastructure priority because our children’s development is at risk,” O’Malley said. “We need to fix the source of lead in our schools by removing lead from our environment – including any lead service lines and water fountains that register positively for lead.”

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[i] Alan Woolf, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, “Blood Lead Thresholds & Health Effects,” webinar presentation for Environment America, slide 7, September 20, 2016.

[ii] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water,” EPA.gov, updated December 2016, accessible at https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water.  

[iii] This statement has been asserted by multiple health and environmental agencies and organizations. See for instance: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead,” CDC.gov, September 2016, accessible at https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water,” EPA.gov, December 2016, accessible at https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water; and the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Lead Exposure in Children,” aap.org, 2016, accessible at https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/lead-exposure/Pages/Lead-Exposure-in-Children.aspx.

[iv] Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, “LCCA Banned Water Coolers,” Mass.gov, accessible at http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/water/drinking/lcca-banned-water-coolers-appendix-e-3ts.html.

[v] U.S. Congress, “An Act To amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to reduce lead in drinking water,” Congress.gov, January 4, 2011, accessible at https://www.congress.gov/111/plaws/publ380/PLAW-111publ380.pdf.