Erik Kantar

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Bushwick public schools are amongst others struggling to eradicate high levels of lead found in sinks, faucets, and water fountains. After undergoing testing, and remediation in 2016, many re-tests during the 2018-2019 school year revealed new instances of elevated lead levels, despite programs that were designed to eliminate lead from schools years ago, according to a letter from Bushwick’s District 32 Community Education Council.

In many cases, these updated reports arrived shortly after letter notices had been sent to parents assuring that the NYC Department of Education had “successfully completed remediation work.”

Amid the growing health crisis, the District 32 Community Education Council highlighted as an example three local schools in a letter to NYC DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza, and NYC DOH Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, pleading to allocate funds towards a complete and thorough lead eradication.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states: “Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure. Therefore, for homes with children or pregnant women and with water lead levels exceeding EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb), CDC recommends using bottled water or water from a filtration system that has been certified by an independent testing organization to reduce or eliminate lead for cooking, drinking, and baby formula preparation.”

The three schools cited are P.S. 376, P.S. 106, and I.S. 383––all showing higher levels of lead following remediation treatments and the initial tests in 2016.

In December 2016 at P.S. 376, every potential source for drinking water or preparing food was tested, resulting in nine out of 99 samples showing elevated lead levels. Roughly two years later, however, 19 out of 122 samples showed elevated lead levels, the highest being 469 ppb and all samples of lead being found in bubblers and classroom faucets.

In December 2016, this time at P.S. 106, every potential source for drinking water or preparing food was tested and five out of 62 samples showed elevated lead. Although in March 2019, nine out of 55 samples tested for led, this time the highest being 1860 ppb from a cold water faucet.

Courtesy of Pixabay.

Finally, in December 2016 at I.S. 383, the same tests were conducted on drinking and food preparation water, revealing 42 out of 149 samples containing lead. In January and April, 2018, the DOE re-tested after remediation and all samples came back completely clean, only to spike up again in November 2018, with 19 out 122 samples containing lead, and 469 ppb being the highest sample.

The issue, according to the District 32 Community Education Council, not only lies in that lead levels have increased after remediation, but that accountability and city actions to properly eliminate the issue has entirely lost momentum.

In the FY2015-2019 Capital Plan, the school construction authority properly allocated funds to remove lead from public school water––a program that was supposed to achieve completion in 2018. Meanwhile, the lead ridden pipes sit largely unfixed to this day and seem to remain that way for the foreseeable future, as the newly revised capital plan for the FY2020-2024 failed to allocate money for lead removal.

With reference to 3-K expanding into District 32, the CEC’s letter urges the city to prioritize schools in their district. With more students under the age of six  expected to use local facilities, heightening concern among city officials as younger children typically are most vulnerable to lead poisoning due to their weaker immune systems, and higher level of hand-to-mouth movements.

Under the city’s current health code, DOE is mandated to visually inspect parts of schools occupied by students six and under, once a year, using portable X-ray fluorescence analyzers to detect classroom surfaces for lead content. According to many activists though, this procedure isn’t nearly enough, as the DOE has yet to provide detailed information on remediation steps that follow the initial detection of lead.

The crisis of lead poisoning doesn’t stop at public schools though: According to the Department of Health, 820 children younger than six were found to have elevated lead levels in their blood between 2012 and 2016 in NYC’s affordable housing. With test levels ranging from 5-9 micrograms per deciliter in their blood, the health department did not inspect the children’s homes because the formal city policy requires a lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter before an apartment can be inspected.

Fifth Grade prom at P.S. 106.

Although the policy was later changed after public outrage––five micrograms per deciliter is now the new inspection minimum for a child under 18––the old law is exemplar of slow-moving change in public facility health.

Of these New York City children that were affected, 82 percent were Black, Latinx, and Asian, while 62 percent were living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

Beyond stunting early intellectual growth, and affecting cardiovascular, hormonal, and immune systems in young children, lead poisoning has also caused deaths at alarming rates in New York City. Between the years of 2014-2016, according to Department of Health statistics, 225 children from the ages of 1-4 have died from lead poisoning, as well as 154 from the ages of 5-9, and 156 from ages 10 to 14.

While lead in water is an issue, an extensive investigation by WNYC, Mark Treyger, chair of the New York City Education Committee, called for a system-wide inspection and remediation of public school buildings with high levels of lead paint contamination, stating that:

“This to me is an emergency,” he said. “This is not an issue that you could just simply punt and do a working group on. This is a public health issue.”

Cover image courtesy of Pixabay.

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