Elevated Levels of Lead Found in Water at Newark Schools

Water testing at several public schools in Newark found elevated levels of lead.

By Michael Hill

Williams:Don’t drink the water. They’ve turned off the tap at virtually half the public schools in Newark after routine testing detected unacceptable levels of lead in the water supply. Michael Hill’s been working the story.

Hill: Cause for concern Mary Alice, the lead levels are high, way above what the E-P-A calls a trigger for treatment. They will lead to follow up testing, may be replacing pipes and for certain children undergoing blood tests.

“Not elevated to the level of Flint,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

But just how reassuring is that when the lead levels in the water of some Newark schools are exponentially higher than what the EPA considers worthy of taking some action.

“There has been detected some high or elevated lead in the water and about 30 of 65 schools had elevated levels of lead here in the city of Newark,” Baraka said.

The federal threshold for acceptable levels of lead is 15 parts per billion. Testing at Bard High School found the highest lead level in the entire system at 558 parts per billion, Branch Brook at 194 and Wilson Avenue with 193 parts per billion.

Despite the elevated lead levels, the mayor and schools superintendent offered reassurance.

“It is perfectly fine to wash dishes, the water is safe to wash hands with,” said Superintendent Chris Cerf.

“The water in Newark is safe and drinkable,” Baraka said.

But, out of an abundance of caution — and perhaps prevention — and on the advice of the state Department of Environmental Protection, the district has shut off all drinking water fountains at the schools with elevated lead levels and will opt for bottled water to prepare foods and to drink.

“We aeed at least 2,000 to 3,000 people to bring one to two cases of water a piece and drop them off at all of our to community centers,” Baraka said.

What’s the source of the lead? All agree the issue is not Newark’s water supply.

“The water quality in Newark is excellent,” said NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin.

The water department insists it’s the pipes, the usual culprits.

The water in Newark’s schools is tested once a year at 10 different faucets in each school.

The biggest threat to health usually is in young, developing minds and bodies — children. In this case, the state says parents can take their children to the Newark Health Department for free screening.

A question that seems to catch officials off guard is if they received some of these results last week and on Monday why have they waited until Wednesday to share them?

“Monday is when I got briefed part of the team was getting the preliminary results of these two schools at the end of last week. Some more came in and were analyzed over the weekend and I was breifed at 8:30 a..m this morning,” said Cerf. When ask why they waited until Wednesday to tell parents, his response? “Well we needed to put a plan in place, the logistical challenge. By the way we received assurance that this was not a high level emergency Nature that a day would make a difference.”

Hill: And Mary Alice we’re going to get some perspective on these numbers because a lot of people are asking questions about them. Joining us right now is Dr. Lut Raskin an environmental and civil engineer professor at the University of Michigan. Dr. Rakin thank you for joining us. Doctor what do these numbers mean?

Raskin: The levels that I’m seeing here in these school in Newark are quite high and are certainly concerning to me. I would advise parents if their children are going to these schools to take these numbers seriously and have their children bring bottled water or find another source of water and certainly not drink the water in school until we get notification that these levels have come down and action has been taken.

Hill: The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is urging parents if they have those kind of concerns to go and get their kids tested for free. Blood tests and so forth your thoughts on that?

Raskin: I think that’s a good idea in general. There’s lots of sources of lead exposure and so drinking water is only one of them. I think it’s a really great recommendation especially, if they can do it for free to have their children tested for lead. The chances are that the drinking water may not have a big impact on their children depending on their levels of exposure to theses drinking water sources we don’t know that. But having them test is certainly a first step towards getting answers.

Hill: Their saying in this case it’s not the water itself, it’s not the Newark water. They suspect it’s the pipe or something else. In cases like this, how quickly when you learn of these kind of elevated results like this should you inform the public, should you inform parents? If you find  that on Thursday should you wait a week later to tell and share those results?

Raskin: No. I think everybody would agree that parents need to find out immediately when these levels are found.

Hill: How dangerous is 558 parts per billion?

Raskin: Any level of lead is unsafe, we would like lead to be zero parts per billion in our water but in practice it’s not possible to have every sample at zero but we’d like it to be as low as possible and certainly below the action level of 15. So, any level above that is very concerning. In levels of 500 are extremely concerning. One thing to notice is that it’s possible because of how the samples need to be taken, is the first sample that’s taken after the school has been closed overnight, might have a higher level of lead. So it is very possible that even if children have been drinking this water that they haven’t really been exposed to really high levels because after the water runs for a while the levels of lead will go down because the lead is coming from the pipes and so when water has been rushing through the pipes the levels go down.

Hill:And Dr. Raskin, quickly we know you’ve been watching this situation in flint. How do these numbers compare to what they’ve found in Flint.

Raskin: There are some homes in Flint where the levels were higher and you know there’s lots of testing being done in Flint and some levels compared to these levels. There are homes in Flint at levels below the action level no. Initially there were some home in flint with very high levels, more than a thousand PPB of lead, parts per billion.

Hill:Dr. Raskin, thank you very much, Dr. Lut Raskin from Univerity of Michigan.

Raskin: Thank you.

Hill: So Mary Alice, we’ll be watching this story for the next couple of days, perhaps weeks as well.

Williams: Alright thank you, Michael.


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