Readdressing Lead in Public School Drinking Water

Lead contamination in school drinking water can cause severe health problems in children. Ingesting even low concentrations of lead can hinder cognitive capacity, exacerbate behavioral problems, damage brain and nervous system development, and lower the ability to concentrate. Children with significant brain impacts from lead poisoning have been found to have a lower graduation rate from high school and increased rates of violence and incarceration as adults.

Due to these serious side effects, New York adopted a testing and remediation program in 2016 to understand the extent of lead poisoning and address the most seriously contaminated drinking water fixtures. The first round of public school testing data throughout New York State produced concerning results, including:

  • Approximately 82% of public schools in New York found one or more sources of drinking water that were above the law’s action standard of 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead
  • Over 56% of public schools in NY reported 5% of their tap water outlets were above the 15 ppb action level
  • 2% of NY public schools had high lead concentrations in half of their drinking water sources
  • 16 public school buildings saw every water outlet tested above the 15 ppb lead standard, although many of these schools tested very few sources

A new bill in the New York State legislature, S. 7268 (Rivera) /A. 9545 (Gottfried), would address these concerning results by tightening lead regulations for public school drinking water, thereby safeguarding children’s health.

First, the bill would bring the 15 ppb action level down to 5 ppb. The Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization have come to the conclusion that there is no “safe level” of lead exposure for children, meaning that New York’s current action level is much too high. While New York’s long-term goal should be to have an even lower standard, moving to 5 ppb would be a significant improvement that is more aligned with the scientific consensus. With a reduced action level, more drinking water fixtures would be remediated, thereby better protecting students from the severe adverse health effects of lead exposure.

Second, the bill would change testing standards for schools with “lead-free” pipes. Under current federal law (Safe Drinking Water Act, 42 U.S.C. § 300-g-6 (d)), pipes composed of less than 0.25% lead can be considered “lead-free.” Presently, public schools can be exempt from testing if their pipes comply with this standard. S. 7268/A. 9545 would remove this exemption entirely and mandate that all school tap water sources are tested for lead.

Third, the bill would increase testing frequency. The current requirement is for schools to be tested “periodically,” or about every 5 years, but this bill would mandate that tests occur on an annual basis. Other provisions of the bill include requiring laboratory reports and data to be easily accessible and posted online, and improving training for all personnel involved in testing, which together would increase transparency, quality, access, and testing accuracy.

S. 7268/A. 9545 is a crucial piece of legislation to advance New York’s public school lead drinking water standards to protect children from lead poisoning, and NYLCV is making it a priority in 2020.