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Lead Contamination Found In Amsterdam Schools

Tim Graham

A letter from Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Thomas Perillosays elevated levels of lead were found in a variety of sources, including drinking water fountains, at three separate buildings: Barkley, Marie Curie, and Tecler Elementary Schools.

The superintendent says immediate action was taken after test results were returned last week. Bottled water and water coolers are being provided to students and staff. Water at the schools’ kitchens and cafeterias were determined safe to drink.

The district decided to test for lead in response to recent headlines about lead, PFOA, and other contaminants being discovered in communities across the region.

Perillo says water samples were taken at each of the district’s buildings as part of a building conditions survey, which was being conducted ahead of a recently approved $49 million capital project to upgrade plumbing, electrical, and mechanical systems.

“So from our architects, we thought it was probably a good idea and made sense to actually have our facilities under the building conditions survey. And we did, and the first report did come back with elevated levels in those three schools,” says Perillo.

Elevated lead levels were also recently found in Niskayuna schools. Schenectady schools recently announced it would test for lead as well. It’s also been found in Binghamton, Ithaca and New Rochelle.

Tim Kremer, Executive Director of the New York School Boards Association, says districts across the state are being taken by surprise.  

“School districts are counting on a municipal water source that they believe has already been tested and is coming to us clean as a whistle. And what we are finding out is that we have, in schools, old buildings with lead pipes, and learning that it is possible once we test these that we have a significant amount of contaminants in our water,” says Kremer.

Amsterdam is currently awaiting re-tests, due back in June.

Perillo says the contamination is suspected of being sourced from certain pipes and fixtures that have since been shut off.

“The idea is to keep everyone safe and to not use those fixtures until the re-tests come back,” says Perillo

The capital project will replace all the fixtures within the district.

Studies have shown that lead poisoning can impair learning ability and cause brain damage. Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network, recently told WAMC that young children can be more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults.

“They breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and they drink more water per pound of body weight than adults. You certainly don't want to send kids to school to do well on all their work, be in school, stay healthy and achieve to their optimum level, and them, along the way, ask them to drink leaded water. It doesn't work very well.”

Perillo said he backs legislation being considered by the state Assembly to require regular testing of lead in schools.

Assembly bill A9687 would require schools to test for lead and also allow districts to use school aid to test for and remediate lead contamination. It would also require districts to notify parents.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, who represents Amsterdam, is a co-sponsor…

“Regular testing of water in schools is very, very important because it will identify problems before they become a crisis, and there’s also funding that can be put behind this to remedy those problems as quickly as possible,” said Santabarbara.

The Federal Lead Contamination Control Act  and Lead and Copper Rule address lead in drinking water. Testing guidelines are recommended to schools, but aren’t mandatory.

Earlier this month, activists gathered at the state capital to push for a five-point action plan to address lead contamination.

It would require schools test for lead and copper contamination, provide safe drinking water if elevated levels are detected, and inform parents and teachers quickly. It asks the state to provide funding for remediation, and for annual reporting on state testing from the state Department of Health.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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