New Jersey's largest school district began voluntary blood tests to check students for the presence of lead Thursday, a week after officials announced that elevated levels had been found in the drinking water.
The first testing concentrated on the Newark school district's youngest students and began at the early childhood center, which was among 30 schools that had elevated lead levels in their water. About 67 families had registered for testing, said schools spokeswoman Dreena Whitfield.
As many as 17,000 children will be checked for lead poisoning, and the district will unveil a plan for wider testing next week, Whitfield said. The district said it plans to begin testing every tap at every school, including charter schools, in consultation with the EPA starting Saturday
Lead is known to severely affect a child's development.
"Well, I just hope they can fix it, 'cause she has to go school here," said Dionne Bradshaw, a Newark mother whose 4-year-old daughter was tested. "And if it can't be fixed I will just have to put here in another school or home school her. Whatever is best for my daughter."
Officials urged calm and said they don't believe there are any serious health risks. They say the lead levels in some of Newark's schools don't compare to the crisis that has plagued Flint, Michigan.
WNYC in New York reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency worked with Newark schools in 2003 after elevated lead levels were found.
The schools superintendent at the time, Marion Bolden, said they replaced the water fountains in almost every school, installed lead filters and sent letters home to parents.
Lead hasn't been found in the city's water supply. It likely leached into the schools' water through lead pipes or other building fixtures made of lead or lead solder.
F. Nana Ofosu-Amaah, executive director of the Newark schools' office of early childhood, said not all the 67 families had their kids tested on Thursday.
"Some of them started to call their pediatricians, and say 'You know I'll just wait and go to the pediatrician,'" she said.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday that his administration would work closely with Newark officials to help remedy the problem.
"I want to make sure everyone understands this is a situation we're concerned about, but it is not a crisis," Christie said. "But we don't want to let it become a crisis. So we're on top of it."
It's unclear how long Newark's children have been exposed to higher concentrations of lead. School officials had shut off the water at 30 buildings last week and are using bottled water for drinking and cooking.
In his State of the City address, Mayor Ras Baraka called for a permanent improvement to the city's infrastructure.
"Our students' health is in jeopardy. There is nothing wrong with Newark's water, but there is something wrong with our infrastructure. It is old," Baraka said. "We don't want to send our children bottled water for the next 20 years, and we don't just want filters on water-use sites."
Newark isn't the only city that has been grappling with elevated lead levels, NBC 4 New York has found. In nearby Jersey City, schools have had water fountains cut off and cordoned off with caution tape after officials found high readings of the heavy metal at more than a dozen schools three years ago.
High lead levels have been found in Jersey City schools as recently built as 1995, and schools are spending about $50,000 a year to stock water coolers and bottled water. Suez Water, which supplies water to Jersey City schools, said recent tests haven't shown contamination.
The testing comes as some parents and lawmakers call for mandatory lead testing at public schools across the state.