Schools Scramble to Test Their Water after Newark Finds Lead

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New York City, which tested the water in all of its public schools, is replacing or repairing faulty fixtures and pipes.

Schools across the tri-state region have been rushing to test their faucets and fountains since the revelation in March that lead contamination of drinking water was widespread in Newark Public Schools. 

The sudden surge in demand has environmental labs inundated with 500 to 600 water samples a days, causing major delays right as the public, and parents, clamor to know if the water the children drink every day is safe.

“When we first contacted our engineer, we were told a 2-3 week turnaround time, but now we are looking at 6-8 weeks," said Hank Grishman, the superintendent of the Jericho School District on Long Island, which has received some, but not all, of its test results.

There are no federal or state laws that require school districts to test for lead, unless they have their own water source distinct from the one that feeds the municipality. As a result, many districts have never tested their water. New York City went 10 years without testing an overwhelming majority of its public schools. Newark, which has been testing annually since 2003, was actually the exception in how much attention the district gave to the matter.

On Long Island, where NBC 4 New York, WSHU Radio and WNYC have collaborated to report on the issue, more that two dozen school districts are trying to get their water tested. So far, our team has learned of 11 districts where at least one sample has had lead levels about the federal guideline of 15 parts per billion. They are Jericho, Bayport-Blue Port, Port Washington, Valley Stream 13, Valley Stream Central High School, Northport-East Northport (one sink), Elwood, Commack, Cold Spring Harbor, Locust Valley and Syosset.

One of the two major environmental engineering companies on the island, Enviroscience, has found unsafe levels of lead in most of the schools it has tested.

“Maybe 20 percent of those buildings are lead free," the company's president, Glen Neuschwender, said. "About 20 percent are extraordinarily high, and the rest are somewhere in the middle where we need to deal with two, three, four, five fixtures in a building that need to be replaced or permanently shut off.”

Lead is a neurotoxin. Occasional exposure is harmless, but repeatedly drinking contaminated water, especially for small children, can lead to developmental problems.