A state lawmaker says the state Health and Education departments have ignored disturbing information about elevated lead levels in drinking water in school districts across the state, including Western New York.
Assemblyman Steven Sanders, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said the agencies should have followed up more extensively on a survey in which nearly 20 percent of 684 schools reported dangerous lead contaminants in water fountains and other drinking sources.
Education Department officials insisted the schools already had taken care of any lead problems. Department officials could cite only one Western New York district -- West Seneca -- that reported higher-than-acceptable lead levels.
But a chart, supplied by Sanders, showed other Western New York schools reporting elevated lead levels, including Cheektowaga Central High and Pine Hill and Union East Elementary schools in the Cheektowaga Central district and all schools in the Depew School District.
In Frontier Central, all schools except the high school reported elevated lead levels, as did the primary, middle and intermediate schools in the Maryvale School District; and the middle and elementary school in Newfane.
In the West Seneca district, West Seneca East High School and Allendale, Clinton, Potter Road and Winchester elementary schools all reported elevated levels.
"All of the 120 districts that reported a problem have been mitigated," said Tom Dunn, an Education Department spokesman.
But officials in Sanders' office said the state does not know how or when any corrective measures might have been taken because it failed to follow up adequately with districts that reported elevated lead levels.
He also said the state has no precise reading of the lead problem because schools were asked to note only whether they exceeded a certain level. He said 95 districts also checked a box on the survey asking for follow-up help from the state, but the two departments have not responded.
State Health Department officials would say only that "virtually all" the schools had fixed the problems by flushing pipes or bringing in bottled water. The state did not take another survey of those reporting problems to find out how they had lowered the lead levels.
"At this point, we don't see any reason for a parent to be alarmed about a threat to their children's health," said William Van Slyke, Health Department spokesman.
Though lead-based paint and contaminated dust are the major sources of lead exposure, high lead levels in water also can cause lead poisoning, which can afflict nearly every system in the body.
Symptoms often go unrecognized, but can lead to learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing loss and other problems.
Van Slyke said the Health Department is especially concerned about prolonged exposure to lead exceeding 50 parts per billion. To be extra cautious, he noted, the survey asked schools to note if they had discovered lead levels exceeding 20 parts per billion.
But Sanders said the state has no idea of the actual lead levels and that schools could have found levels far in excess of 50 parts per billion.
Threatening a subpoena, he asked the departments to provide details on exact lead levels in the schools that reported problems.
Sanders also said parents should have been alerted.
"That they took no action renders the state-conducted survey meaningless and constitutes an abrogation of their duty to protect the public."
He said he will introduce legislation requiring the state to standardize water quality testing for all public schools.