Elevated lead levels found in half of NY, NJ school water fountains, data shows

Kristin Thorne Image
Wednesday, December 20, 2023
Elevated lead levels found in many NY, NJ school water fountains
Kristin Thorne has more on the investigation.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- You may not think much about the water your kids are drinking when they're in school, but maybe you should.

The 7 On Your Side Investigates team found that 43% of schools in New York and 56% of schools in New Jersey had water outlets test beyond the recommended maximum amount for lead in drinking water, according to the most recent reporting data.

Lead is particularly harmful to children - even low levels of exposure have been linked to learning disabilities, stunting of physical growth and damage to the nervous system.

In our viewing area in New Jersey, we found the Toms River School District had the highest number of outlets - 56 - test beyond the Environmental Protection Agency's acceptable limit for lead.

The Superintendent told Eyewitness News some of the water outlets were not used for drinking and if they were used for drinking they were shut off as a result of the testing results.

Superintendent Michael Citta said, "Water coolers have been used in schools for over a decade, and with recent facility upgrades, filtered hydration stations are now in every building as well. We have been and continue to be transparent with our water testing and results, which is posted publicly on our website, as well as implementing the remedial actions required."

In our viewing area in New York, we found the Yonkers School District had the highest number of water outlets test beyond the accepted level of lead.

The superintendent told us the district has fixed or taken out of service all 356 outlets which contained high levels of lead and has installed 224 new water bottle filling stations.

The issue of lead in drinking water is a concern for nearly every school in our area because of old water fountains and the school buildings themselves, many of which were built with lead pipes in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There is no federal requirement for most schools to test for lead; it's up to the states.

While both New York and New Jersey have strengthened their regulations in the last two years, Connecticut has no state laws or regulations to address lead in schools' drinking water.

In New York and New Jersey, schools are required to test for lead every three years and to post the test results online.

The Jersey City Public Schools District is using $10 million in federal and state funding to replace all the lead pipes in the district.

"My commitment as the superintendent is that our children have drinkable water every time," Jersey City Schools Superintendent Norma Fernandez said.

For years, most students in the school district have not been able to drink from a water fountain because of high levels of lead. The district has provided water coolers for students to fill up water bottles at school.

For years, parents and community activists have been demanding the school district remediate the issue.

In 2018, the school district received a $5 million federal grant water remediation.

Fernandez said environmental companies ranked the school buildings worst to best in terms of lead contamination in the water. The school district went about doing the fixes in three phases starting with the most contaminated buildings first.

Fernandez said after phases one and two were completed, the grant ran out, so the district secured more funding.

She said 14 buildings - about 30% of the district's buildings - are still in need of remediation. She is hopeful it will be completed in the next two years.

WABC participated with ABC News and seven other ABC stations across the country taking a look at this issue in schools across the nation.

You can watch the full investigation called The American Classroom on Hulu or the ABC News app.

To look up testing results in your child's school in New Jersey, visit the New Jersey Department of Education's website.

To look up testing results in New York, visit the state health department website.


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