Lead in Water Remains Pervasive Problem in New Jersey Schools

More than half the school districts in Bergen County have lead — a dangerous neurotoxin — in faucets and other fixtures

Lead in water
The state’s top infrastructure priority ought to be getting the lead out of drinking water in schools, a problem exemplified by half the school districts in one county showing some lead levels in outlets, an environmental group said yesterday.

In a survey of school districts in Bergen County, 55 percent of the districts found lead in their faucets and other fixtures, according to Environment New Jersey.

“We need to fix the source of lead in our schools by removing lead from our environment — including any lead service lines and water fountains that register positively for lead,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of the advocacy group.

Finding the money

“It’s going to be a challenge to find the money,’’ noted Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), who spoke about the results of the survey. “I’m not sure where the money is going to come from, but it needs to be a state priority.’’

The group released its report surveying the school districts in the state’s most populous county to drive home the urgency of New Jersey’s problem of exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxin and that can hurt children. School districts throughout the state were supposed to finish testing for lead in their drinking-water systems last week under a regulation adopted last year after high levels of lead were found in numerous districts.

O’Malley said the results from Bergen County, culled from district websites and calls to administrators, are a microcosm of New Jersey and also reflect the larger issue of lead contamination.

High levels of lead

In the survey, of 3,385 outlets tested by 47 school districts reporting results, there were 1,866 showing lead in the water at levels above 1 part per billion (ppb) — the standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, 344 outlets were above 15 ppb, the safety standard established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The state ordered the schools to conduct the testing and to shut down any outlets above the EPA standard. Some schools have replaced the lead service lines and fixtures that are the source of the lead in the water, but the problem is so widespread, Gordon said it is likely that the state and federal government will have to jointly address the problem.

“This is a far bigger problem than one of aging pipes in schools,’’ Gordon said. Most children exposed to lead in the state are as a result of peeling paint in homes. The students in school are coming home and also are exposed to lead from paint in their homes, he said.

Special task force

The Legislature established a special task force to explore potential solutions to the problem, but it has yet to issue any recommendations. The cost of replacing the lead lines and fixtures could easily run to hundreds of millions of dollars, and possibly more, according to Gordon.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced legislation to establish a grant program to help local schools replace outdated water infrastructure, but that measure has yet to move in the U.S. Senate.

“The crisis of tackling lead in our school drinking water should be our state’s top infrastructure priority because our children’s development is at risk,’’ O’Malley said.