Poisoned Water in Newark Schools

Newark Public Schools recently acknowledged that the water at its schools has contained high levels of lead for years. This is shocking but, sadly, not surprising given the neglect of public schools, especially those in poor communities, by Congress and state governments.

Last week Newark officials began offering blood tests for elevated lead levels in students after tests showed that drinking water at 30 of the district’s 67 schools exceeded the safety threshold established by the Environmental Protection Agency. But even levels below that standard — 15 parts per billion — are not acceptable. Public health experts say there is no safe amount of lead in water and that children exposed to the heavy metal can suffer irreversible damage to the neurological system.

The Newark district found high lead levels in water samples taken over the past four years and has promised to release the results from earlier years. District officials were aware of the hazard as early as 2004, and some steps, like installing water filters, were taken over the years.

There are striking parallels between Newark schools and the city of Flint, Mich., which is also struggling with a lead crisis. Both are distressed, both have a large minority population, and both are subject to state control — in the Newark school district’s case, for more than 20 years. Gov. Chris Christie’s administration needs to respond immediately, providing bottled water to the schools and figuring out how many children have been harmed.

The state should also investigate what previous superintendents did in response to elevated lead levels and why results from earlier tests were not made public. If the state is unable or unwilling to do that, federal officials should step in. Last week, federal court filings in New York City revealed that the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan is investigating elevated blood lead levels in residents of the city’s public housing and homeless shelters.

Lead in the water, which often comes from water lines and plumbing fixtures, has been a hazard in school districts around the country, including those of Washington, D.C.; Seattle; and Los Angeles. Baltimore’s has used bottled water for drinking and cooking since 2007. Schools in Camden, N.J., have been on bottled water for 14 years.

Since most school buildings in cities are old, they tend to have plumbing with significant amounts of lead. It was not until 1986 that Congress set the maximum level of lead in pipes and fixtures at 8 percent, a standard unchanged until Congress lowered it to 0.25 percent starting in 2014.

Yet federal law does not require schools to test their water if they get it from a public water utility, which most schools do. This needs to change. Congress and state legislatures should pass laws requiring regular testing for lead and that the results are made public.

When contamination is detected, school districts will need money and expertise from federal and state agencies to fix the problem. It is absolutely unacceptable that public schools, very often in the poorest communities, may be poisoning their children.

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