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New York Gov. Hochul announces "parameters of conceptual" budget deal, two weeks after deadline

Blair Horner: And In Other News

As New York’s ethics problems continue to dominate headlines, other important issues are getting short shrift.   Just one such issue is the quality of drinking water supplies – particularly those found in New York’s schools.

Last week, concerns raised by parents in New Rochelle were reported – some test results in their school district found levels of lead that are too high.  None of the tests came close to those found in places like Flint, Michigan, but there is no safe level of lead exposure for children.  And this was water found in schools.

The district had dozens of faucets and fountains sampled and found some with high lead levels, after flushing water systems, lead levels dropped off.  But parents are still concerned.

They join parents in places like Ithaca and Binghamton who have also found elevated lead levels in schools’ drinking water supplies.

Over the last decade we’ve learned that the testing routines did not detect true risk from lead, that there are sources of lead that we’re missing in our tests and that testing was too infrequent. It’s hard to see how the status quo in lead testing for water is adequately serving the public.  Albany must act.

Lead is a persistent and bio-accumulative toxic metal that is a threat to public health. When consumed, even low levels of lead can have a harmful impact on almost every system and organ in the human body. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the maximum contaminant level target for lead in drinking water at zero, as any level of lead exposure can be detrimental to human health. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children.

This highly toxic substance is a particular threat to children whose bodies absorb more lead than adults. Even low levels of lead exposure in children have been linked to, among other symptoms: damage of the nervous system; learning disabilities; behavior problems; and in extreme cases ingestion of lead by young children has been linked to seizures, coma and death.

Amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) banned the use of lead plumbing and solder in the installation and repair of any service lines used to provide water for human consumption. However, service lines in schools built before the 1986 lead ban may still contain lead fixtures and lead solder, allowing the toxic metal to leach into water supplies as infrastructure corrodes over time.

While federal and state laws mandate testing of municipal water supplies for contamination, there are no mandatory guidelines in place requiring the testing of schools’ tap water. Currently, the EPA has no requirement mandating that school districts drawing from municipal water systems test their water at the tap at all, only making strong recommendations that individual school districts do so. As of right now, any lead testing at schools connected to municipal water supplies is voluntary, therefore it is unclear exactly how many New York State schoolchildren are unknowingly being poisoned.

The New York State Department of Health warns that “primary prevention” – taking deliberate measures to prevent exposure to lead before it occurs – is the only effective way to protect children and families from lead poisoning. While measures have been taken to protect children’s drinking water at the source, the threat of lead contamination from infrastructure decay looms heavily over schools.

Lead poisoning is preventable, and the only way to keep children safe is to reduce any risk of exposure. By not regularly testing schools’ water at the tap, New York puts the health, safety, and future of children in danger. New York State has a moral obligation to keep its children safe and its schools’ drinking water lead-free.

While the media is focused on the growing controversies that threaten to overwhelm the Cuomo Administration, there are important issues that lawmakers must address.  Mandating aggressive action on lead – as well as other toxic substances – in schools’ drinking water is important issue that must be addressed this session, before the next school year begins.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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