Report: 300 schools test positive for lead contaminated water

School districts across the state have tested for lead in their water. But often, accessing the test results is a challenge. Briana Vannozzi finds out what’s being done from Chris Sturm, the policy and water managing director of NJ Future.

Vannozzi: So, Chris, this is actually the first time the statewide data has been compiled like this. What are we seeing, how widespread is the issue of lead in our drinking water?

Sturm: What we found is that lead is pervasive in drinking water in school across New Jersey, in schools small and large and in every county of the state. We found rural communities like High Point in Sussex County and suburban towns like Berkeley Heights.

Vannozzi: The demographic, the geographic, urban, suburban, everything, it runs the gamut. But, in how many districts and how many schools are we seeing these levels that are reportedly higher?

Sturm: Unfortunately, we can’t give you accurate data because the data that we receive from the Department of Education was incomplete for a number of reasons. But, what we do know is that over 300 schools have at least one drinking water outlet that’s testing above federal levels for lead in drinking water.

Vannozzi: Does the data show where that water outlet is? So, if I’m a parent and we’re about to go back to school right now, are we talking about water fountains? Does the data differentiate if this is a sink in a room that’s never used or a water fountain where my child is drinking from daily?

Sturm: That’s a really good question. We are encouraging all parents to check out their school district’s website and look for the lead testing results. The districts were required to identify which schools had problem outlets and to describe those outlets. We found kind of a mixed bag. They were only supposed to require outlets that are used to prepare food in cafeterias and drinking fountains that kids are using, but we did see some reports that included things like janitor’s things. But, if there are any questions, parents can go directly to the school district to get the more precise data.

Vannozzi: Why don’t we have all of that data in as it’s supposed to be reported? There was a deadline this July. They’re only supposed to report it when the levels are elevated?

Sturm: That’s right. So, the regulations, which the Board of Education adopted, and you should note that New Jersey is one of just a handful of states that is requiring this lead testing.

Vannozzi: Right, Gov. Christie put this into place in 2016 of course after Flint, Michigan erupted across the nation.

Sturm: That’s right and we’re really glad he did that. The regulations are limited, though, they’re really a first step. What we’ve seen, and what the regulations require, is that school districts that are testing, all school districts have to test, all school districts have to report on the district website, but only districts with positive results have to send those reports into the Department of Education. New Jersey Future then reached out to the Department of Education and they indicated that they wouldn’t be compiling results statewide. So, we OPRAed, using the Open Public Records Act, requested those reports and we got what they sent us. So, we only got reports where there were positive lead levels and what we did get, we don’t know what that means. We don’t know if those were districts that were doing testing and reporting locally but didn’t send it in and we know that some cities were doing that like Camden and Atlantic City and Newark.

Vannozzi: Places where this has been a problem that we’ve known about. What does the report recommend we do from here?

Sturm: Well, it recommends a bunch of things. First of all, we really want to see better data collection. We would like in this 21st century to see the Department of Education setting up an electronic portal so that school districts can send in data to fields that are well-defined so we can know exactly which kinds of outlets, for example, are exhibiting lead and results could be tallied easily. We also want to see those reports shared with the public. We want the state to be able to get its arms around the extent of the problem so that we understand what the economics are for addressing it.

Vannozzi: So certainly then, parents can go and check and it would encourage them to do so.

Sturm: Absolutely. There would be one easy spot for them to find results. And, there is also this issue where some cities may need help to do long term remediation. Smaller districts, districts with a lot of resources can probably replace the drinking fountains and interior pipes themselves. But, we know that districts like Camden and Newark are facing some tough challenges. They can keep kids safe in the short run, Camden has been providing bottled water for 14 years and the city of Newark has installed high-tech filters that will shut off the outlet if lead is detected. But, when it comes to actually replacing all the water outlets and the pipes that feed them in these rambling older schools, that’s a much tougher challenge.

Vannozzi: Certainly a lot of money is needed there, we’re keeping an eye on it and we know that your organization will be as well. Chris Sturm thank you so much for coming in.

Sturm: Sure, thank you for having me.

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