MAP: Find the Lead-Tainted Water Fountains in NYC Schools

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Over the last several weeks and months, public school parents in New York City have received letters explaining that water fixtures in their children’s schools tested positive for lead. Remember, this is the second round of water testing the city has done inside of a year: new statewide legislation enacted just this fall put a stricter protocol in place to ensure that any contaminated pipes or fixtures were caught early.

In this latest, tougher round of testing, reports show nine times as many water sources tested above the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) compared to tests conducted just a year ago.

To clarify the information parents are receiving, WNYC is attempting to map every school water fountain that recently tested lead-positive. This ongoing project needs you to be a success.

Darker points correspond to a higher level of lead found at a single water fountain in the building. Larger points correspond to more water fountains found with lead.

School buildings marked as grey had at least one elevated sample but WNYC does not have a copy of the results letter to see how many water fountains, if any, had lead. If you have a copy of a letter to share, send it to us at health@wnyc.org.

WHAT'S ON THIS MAP AND WHAT ISN'T? On our map, we've marked every lead-positive water fountain we've found at a New York City public school. The size of the dot correlates with the number of water fountains that have tested positive - more fountains means a bigger dot. Gray dots are what we're calling "ghost schools": we know they have elevated lead levels, but we don't know if those levels are in a water fountain or not, because we haven't seen the backpack letter sent to parents. We're actively collecting those letters, so if you have some of our missing data, let us know! What is not on this map: schools with no elevated lead findings, or schools that did have elevated lead levels but didn't have a positive water fountain (about 400 schools we know of). There are 861 schools on this map, total. That's a little more than half of all school buildings in the city. 

WHY ARE YOU ONLY MAPPING WATER FOUNTAINS? WNYC is mapping water sources that are classified as water fountains, often called “bubblers,” because they are the drinking sources kids are most likely to use. Many of the letters parents received contain positive lead tests for other kinds of fixtures: cold water faucets, hose bibs, and slop sinks. But those fixtures may not have been designed to dispense potable water in the first place, so we excluded them.

WHAT DOES A HIGH LEVEL OF LEAD MEAN? The Department of Education emphasized that many fixtures only tested positive because the water had been sitting in the pipes between eight and 18 hours (per statewide testing standards) before it was sampled. “This is a flushing issue,” said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, first deputy commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She told WNYC that if more kids and adults were drinking water in schools, it would clean the pipes out and protect the water supply.

“After 30 seconds of running it, we see dramatic drops in the level of lead coming out of the faucet,” she said.

Still, there is no safe level of lead which is a neurotoxin. Marc Edwards, the scientist who exposed the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, said any test showing 400 ppb of lead in water could be toxic after one drink. We’ve marked those fixtures as dark pink on our map; if a fixture tested at 1000 ppb or above, we marked it as purple.  After a positive test, faucets are shut down and marked with signs saying the water is not safe to drink, so any water fountain on this map is inactive if it has not been fixed.

The Department of Education reviewed this map and issued the following statement:

"Water in New York City schools is safe for students and staff to drink. As part of our aggressive remediation protocol, any cooking or drinking water fixture with results above 15ppb is immediately taken offline. Citywide testing is ongoing with comprehensive testing and remediation taking place across the city. It’s premature to draw any conclusions at this point."

COULD YOU HELP US OUT? Our data is currently incomplete, because we only have lead letters from 430 schools. If you have one to share, we’d love if you sent it to us at health@wnyc.org. One more thing: while water fountains are often called “bubblers”, they may sometimes be called “cold water faucets.” That means we might have missed a fixture was meant for drinking. If you think we missed a water fountain, let us know.

WNYC intern Cathy Wong contributed to the data analysis and visualization for this story.

An earlier version of this map was published on March 30th.