Lead in drinking water is a serious concern that has come to the public’s attention recently with the crisis in Flint, Michigan, and subsequent discoveries of lead contamination in other cities around the country. New Jersey is not immune to this problem, and lead has been discovered in drinking water across the state.
Lead typically enters water by leaching out of older service lines (that deliver water from the water main into a building), interior pipes, and/or plumbing fittings and fixtures that contain lead or lead-based solder. The Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection have set the action level for lead in drinking water at 15 parts per billion (ppb), at which point corrective action must be taken. The Centers for Disease Control, though, states that no safe blood lead level in children has been identified, and higher levels can cause a variety of serious health effects, including neurological damage. Children are most at risk from exposure to lead paint in old buildings, lead contamination of soil in residential areas, and lead in drinking water.
New Jersey’s water supply utilities are required by law to test water for lead as it leaves the treatment plant and in a sampling of the most at-risk residences, and are responsible for reducing the potential for lead levels where that sampling exceed federal guidelines. The water supply utilities are responsible for any lead lines they own, while public and private property owners, including municipalities and school districts, bear responsibility for their own lines and fixtures. School districts are also now responsible for testing their own water. Water quality in school buildings is of particular concern, not only because many children are drinking the water, but also because the buildings are closed at night and on weekends, allowing more time for lead to leach from pipes into sitting water. Although specific cases of lead being found in school water have made the news recently, it’s hard to say how widespread the issue actually is in New Jersey’s schools.
In response to this information gap, New Jersey Future has compiled available online data on lead in drinking water in New Jersey’s public schools for 2016. (Camden City schools actually found lead in their drinking water back in 2002, but since the problem has not been remedied – students still use bottled water – those schools are included in this analysis.) Information was sourced from news articles or directly from school websites, but the list of schools is not exhaustive and should be viewed as a sample. Public schools providing online information about water testing are listed, regardless of whether testing had been completed at the time of writing. In most cases where lead was reported, a statement was made that the point of discharge (water fountain or sink) had been switched off and remediation measures were being employed (including filter installation or pipe replacement). A complete list of school test results can be found here, and the main findings are highlighted below.
Confirmed positive tests for lead in the drinking water of 137 schools is cause for concern. However, there are a few facts to keep in mind with regard to these findings. First, stating that 137 out of 323 schools have exceeded the action level for lead implies that over 40% of schools have some level of lead contamination in their water, which is not the case. The school districts included here likely tested the water in all of their older school buildings, but in many cases only published results for buildings that tested positive for lead over 15 ppb. Since we only included schools that were specifically mentioned to have negative test results, the actual number of buildings without lead contamination is likely underrepresented. Second, the average number of contaminated points of discharge per building was between two and three, and many buildings only had one source. In most cases, the water was also reported to have been tested after it had been standing for a number of hours (i.e. over the weekend) in order to represent the worst-case scenario. This is important to note when considering the number of children who may have been exposed to lead in a building and their level of exposure. For example, a child drinking the water on a Wednesday afternoon would ingest less lead than a child drinking water first thing on a Monday morning.
The number and age of school buildings in cities translates to more findings of lead in urban school districts. However, rural, suburban and urban communities are all at potential risk if they have older buildings. Although Newark Public School District and Camden City Public School District had the highest levels of lead contamination, positive test results were found from rural, suburban and urban communities.
While it is true that the most serious cause of lead poisoning in children is lead paint, our findings indicate that New Jersey has a widespread problem with lead in school drinking water. Governor Christie has taken an important first step in requiring school districts to test their drinking water and post results. The new rules state that public schools must sample and analyze all drinking water outlets and food preparation sources in accordance with requirements laid out by the Department of Education and the Department of Environmental Protection, and results of the testing must be made available to the public immediately. After the initial testing, districts are required to test all drinking water outlets every six years to ensure continued compliance. Districts must switch off any outlet exhibiting elevated lead levels and take remedial actions to provide alternate sources of water.
The challenges involved in replacing all public and private lead pipes and fixtures are significant. While there are mechanisms to reduce exposure to lead from drinking water, including periodic testing and utilizing control techniques, this problem with aging plumbing illustrates how important it is to invest in, upgrade, and improve New Jersey’s water infrastructure.
Jersey Water Works, the collaborative of leaders from many sectors committed to improving the quality of life in New Jersey communities by upgrading our state’s water infrastructure, has issued a statement on the importance of addressing the problem of lead in drinking water in our older buildings, and has created a resource page to help educate the public on the risks of lead exposure and provide guidance on how to reduce your risk. For more information about lead in drinking water, including actions to take if you are concerned about the water in your home, visit the Jersey Water Works resource page.