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Lead Scare Over Water in Newark Schools Underscores NJ’s Toxic Problem

Testing at 30 schools reveals lead levels above federal EPA action guidelines, triggers emergency response including use of bottled water

Cleveland Elementary School Newark
Cleveland Elementary, one of 30 Newark public schools that had elevated lead levels in its water.

High levels of lead found in the water at 30 Newark public schools, which forced authorities to switch to bottled water for thousands of students, is just the latest sign that the state is far from resolving this problem, advocates said yesterday.

The findings, detected in annual testing of fountains, taps and faucets in the school system’s 65 buildings, triggered an emergency response by city, state, and other agencies, compelling them to truck in alternative water sources overnight Tuesday. The elevated levels were first reported to school officials Friday and confirmed over the weekend.

Childhood lead poisoning -- a decades-old problem that has seen major strides made in reducing exposure -- suddenly reemerged last year as a national issue when Flint, MI, water supplies were found to contain dangerous levels of the substance.

New Jersey has its own lead problems, chiefly caused by exposure to now-banned lead paint peeling in older homes primarily located in urban areas. In 2014, more than 3,000 children under age 6 were found to be suffering from lead poisoning, according to Department of Health data. Of 14,030 tested in Newark, 770 or 5.7 percent had elevated blood levels. In Camden, the local school district switched to bottled water after lead was found in its system.

“It’s a health epidemic in New Jersey. It needs to be fixed,’’ warned Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Network of New Jersey, a group lobbying for increasing funds to lead-hazard abatement efforts.

The Legislature also is concerned about the problem, recently introducing bills to allocate $10 million to a lead-hazard control fund, which has been line-item vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. At a recent press conference, the governor said the issue has been “overdramatized’’ by lawmakers and others.

In Newark yesterday, Mayor Ras Baraka, school officials, and state Department of Environmental Protection representatives, sought to reassure residents and parents that the problem is being addressed and to minimize the health risks posed by the lead levels found in the schools.

“Our water source is safe in Newark,’’ the mayor said, referring to the city-supplied drinking water. “There are a few issues in the schools.’’

The high levels of lead probably were a result of old lead plumbing, service lines, and lead solder from the street to the buildings, according to officials. For the past few years, Newark has been adding a corrosive agent to drinking water to prevent lead leaching from the fixtures. It also has installed filters on water fountains.

Chris Cerf, state-appointed superintendent of schools, said the situation in Newark “is an entirely different story’’ than Flint, where lead levels exceeded 13,000 parts per billion (ppb).

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Of the samples tested that were found to be above the 15-ppb action-level set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most were found to be in the 15-ppb-to 100-ppb range, Cerf said. The highest level detected was 558 ppb at Bard High School. None of the buildings had more than four samples with levels above the action level, Cerf said.

“In an abundance of caution, we are going the extra mile,’’ Cerf said at a hastily arranged news conference at Newark City Hall.

But Berger said there is no safe level of lead exposure to children. “Any exposure to lead is a threat,’’ she said. Lead poisoning can cause lifelong learning and health problems, according to experts.

For Kim Gaddy, a former school board member who is seeking another term, the results are an “outrage.’’ When she first served on the board in the early 1990s, the school system’s 80 buildings were found to have high levels of lead. Her own godson was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

“I feel very disappointed they (school officials and the state) have allowed this to rise again,’’ said Gaddy, who is environmental organizer for Clean Water Action, one of the state’s largest environmental groups.

At the press conference, officials could not say what recent lead testing found in water supplies at the Newark schools. “We’ve only seen a portion of the data from previous years,’’ said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. The agency said it was informed of this year’s results, taken in December, on Monday.

The schools will be retested again for lead in the upcoming days, officials said. In addition, the top 15 communities where high levels of lead have been found in children are having their school districts’ supplies tested, they noted.

For parents concerned about their children, they can have them tested for lead at the Newark Health Department. Baraka also appealed to residents to donate up to two cases of bottled water to the city to help out with providing alternative water supplies.

“What matters most is how much lead is getting into the body,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of Clean Water Action. “We already know it is already happening in Newark.’’

Other elected officials said the problem indicates the need to fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure. “The situation underscores the need for action to fix or replace lead contaminated water pipes that threaten the city’s safety,’’ said Newark Congressman Donald Payne Jr.

To that end, Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) said late yesterday he would sponsor a measure to fund up to $20 million for lead abatement in Newark and other state locations. Bateman suggested using the state Clean Energy Fund to finance the effort, a source of money often siphoned off by various administrations and Legislatures for purposes beyond its original intention

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