Some lawmakers in Albany are pushing for mandatory lead testing at schools across New York after tests conducted independently by several Long Island districts revealed lead levels that one top scientist told the I-Team were worse than in Flint, Michigan.
A bill pending in the New York state legislature would require all schools in the Empire State to conduct lead testing and provide funding for the examinations and to remediate any problems revealed in the results.
The measure comes after a joint investigation by the I-Team and partners WNYC and WSHU radio uncovered a varied and inconsistent response to the lead water problems faced by schools on Long Island.
"We can't continue to allow our students in school to drink unknown quality water in the schools," said state Sen. Tom O’Mara, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Districts across the island began testing taps for lead contamination after news broke in March that dozens of schools in Newark, New Jersey, had tainted water. But the majority of the schools hadn’t been monitoring for lead contamination before that because there were no state or federal laws mandating it.
In Commack, officials footed $40,000 for tests that revealed numerous fountains and sinks had elevated lead levels. The district posted the results online in April.
The I-Team showed those results to Marc Edwards, the renowned Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor credited with uncovering the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. He said some of the schools’ samples were worse than what teams found in Flint.
"In some of these taps, little pieces of lead solder or lead brass can fall off," he said. "And drinking one glass of water can be the same lead exposure as eating 10 lead paint chips."
According to the EPA, any sample that contains more than 15 parts per billion of lead is cause for concern.
At Rolling Hills Primary School, 40 percent of the taps exceeded that standard, including five water fountains, one of which had twice the acceptable level of lead. At Commack High School, meanwhile, one in four taps had elevated levels.
At North Ridge Primary, also an elementary school, one water fountain had 53 parts per billion. And a sink at Commack Middle School tested for 1,700 parts per billion.
The Commack school district said all the fountains and sinks with elevated lead levels were taken offline after the tests were conducted at those schools, and that it was planning to fix or replace all contaminated fountains.
Lisa Feit, a Commack High School parent, said she rushed her kids to the doctor after seeing the lead test results.
"I actually had my kids blood tested," said Feit.
Another parent, Anand Pal, said that even after seeing the results, he was still confused.
"They were transparent in giving that information," said Pal. "But I’m not an expert so I don’t know how much is good for health."
Parents in nearby Wyandanch are in the dark, however. The district hasn’t tested for lead levels because of costs and backlogs at local labs.
Tommy Patrick said that the tests are needed because Wyandanch likely isn’t that different from other districts.
"If it's happening in Northport or happening in Huntington it should happen right here, it's no different," he said.
Edwards says repairs in schools and Albany can’t come fast enough.
"Parents have to push their school boards or we need adults to step forward and make sure that our children are in a safe learning environment," Edwards said. "Part of that safety is making sure that there is water available that is lead free."