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Making a Priority of Getting Lead Out of Drinking Water in Schools

Lawmakers, advocates argue that mandatory testing of pipes in schools is a critical first step to tackling the problem

water fountain

With more schools finding lead contamination in drinking water, legislators and advocates are calling for more aggressive steps to identify problems and fix them when unsafe levels are found.

In a press conference in the State House annex, advocates argued that the state should adopt legislation that establishes a law requiring the mandatory testing of schools and eventually find a way to fund the replacement of lead pipes when high levels of lead are identified.

“Testing for lead in our schools’ drinking water should be the first step. We need to actually fix the source of lead in our schools and our homes by removing lead from our environment,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Lead poisoning has long been acknowledged as a significant health problem in the state since tests of more than 225,000 children in New Jersey have indicated high levels of lead in their blood since 2000, with more than 3,500 reported last year alone. Most of those cases could be traced to peeling lead paint in older housing stock, the major source of poisoning in the state.

Unsafe levels in schools across state

More recently, attention has focused on unsafe levels of lead found in drinking water in schools throughout the state, from Newark where more than two dozen buildings were found have problems to districts as varied as Camden, Cherry Hill, and Saddler River.

In a compilation of online data submitted by schools, New Jersey Future last year found that 136 districts had reported at least finding one high level of lead from one source of water after Gov. Chris Christie ordered all schools to test for lead last summer.

“The sad truth is that the dire effects of lead poisoning are preventable, and as a state we must be more proactive and willing to commit resources to eradicating this problem,’’ said Assemblywoman Liz Muoio (D-Mercer), who is sponsoring a bill to require all schools to test and remediate lead in drinking water.

Little agreement on how to pay for fixes

So far, there is little consensus, if any, on how to pay for problems involving lead-tainted water at schools. In Camden, students there have been drinking bottled water for more than a decade after lead was found in their drinking water.

“It’s not going to get fixed by putting out reports,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The problem is a long-term solution; that’s the expensive part. The solution can’t be buying bottled water.’’

O’Malley called it a matter of budget priorities. “In next year’s budget, we are going to have the next governor prioritize fixing these lead service lines,’’ he said.

Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, agreed. “Our elected officials and future leaders should support broad investment in lead poisoning detection and remediation to ensure our children grow up healthy and that all families can in a safe place they can afford to call home,’’ she said.

A legislative subcommittee on drinking water infrastructure is conducting hearings on how to upgrade New Jersey’s aging system of delivering potable water to homes and businesses, but has not yet finished a report making recommendations on how to do so.

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