How to Understand NYC Schools' Lead Contamination Results

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Water can be tainted with lead from a number of sources.

Officials at the New York City Department of Education said they're close to wrapping up the latest round of testing for lead in school water, possibly by next month, with complete results following a few weeks after that.

But, in the meantime, public school families have been receiving letters breaking down individual school results, with technical language and specific statistics some may find confusing. On top of that, this is the second time schools have tested their water in the last year and this round is showing a spike in the number of water sources over the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion.

With all these moving parts, WNYC offers some guidance. We’ve annotated one of the letters concerned parents sent us, below, to highlight what to look for and we've tried to answer some of the most common questions:

  • I know that any lead level over 15 ppb is troubling, but what should I really be concerned about? First things first: look at where your positive test results come from. Bubblers are water fountains; faucets in a kitchen could be used for cooking. So, positive results there deserve special attention. Marc Edwards, the lead in water expert who exposed the crisis in Flint, Michigan, says other kinds of fixtures -- like hose bibs and slop sinks -- “were never designed or manufactured to dispense water fit for human consumption,” which means positive results there aren’t necessarily surprising and your kids aren’t likely to be getting water from those sources, anyway.
  • How high is too high? Any lead level is troubling. Edwards says anything over 400 ppb indicates a source of water that could harm a child in one drink; anything over 5 ppb gets his attention. City education officials are informing parents if levels are at or above the EPA’s “action level” of 15 ppb, but Washington, DC public schools recently lowered their own “action level” for lead in water to 1 ppb. This article lays out some of the reasons why lower levels of exposure may be of concern.
  • Do I need to get my kids’ blood tested? You can, but it might not be particularly useful, according to Edwards. Because lead doesn’t circulate in the blood for very long (it’s stored in the bones), a negative test might not give an accurate snapshot of exposure. If you do get a positive result, it’s impossible to know the source of that lead.
  • Can’t the city just filter the drinking water? Lead water filters are available, and cheap, from most home goods stores. But education officials said filters won’t fix what they’re finding: the water fixtures themselves are leeching lead. To address that, workers are replacing fixtures and external pipes. Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose added that after the first draw of water from a faucet, lead levels are often dropping dramatically, reinforcing the idea that the water is safe, and working to flush out the fixtures.
  • What do I tell my child to do now? The Department of Education says all water at city schools is safe. But if you are concerned, you might consider sending your kid to school with a water bottle from home. You can also talk to your kid about safe water practices, like:
    • Only drink from fountains or other water sources you know to be potable. Assume fixtures that aren’t explicitly for drinking may not be.
    • Don’t drink hot water. The EPA says it's likely to contain lead, and that you should only use cold water for eating and drinking.
    • Run the tap or fountain for 30 seconds or more before drinking, especially after a weekend or a holiday, when water may have been sitting in the pipes for an extended period of time.