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Buffalo-area schools may have gone decades without testing for lead in water

Some schools in Erie County may not have tested their water for lead levels since the late '80s, according to an Erie 1 BOCES official.

Dennis A. Kwaczala, senior health and safety coordinator with the Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said he believed there are school districts in Erie County that have not tested for lead in their water since 1989.

His shocking statement came in the wake of 11 area school districts releasing Friday test results indicating elevated levels of lead in their school water.

The results posted on district websites and included in letters sent home to parents represent the first time lead testing was required on water used in public elementary, middle and high schools throughout the state, thanks to new regulations signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September.

What started out as a trickle of findings could very well become a deluge as the Oct. 31 deadline draws closer.

Kwaczala is helping 23 Erie County school districts with the testing of water samples from drinking fountains, sinks and kitchen faucets in every one of their school buildings.

The Hamburg Central School District identified two elementary schools – Armor and Boston Valley – as having the most elevated lead levels of the six schools tested.

 At Armor, 5301 Abbott Road, 23 sinks and 11 drinking fountains had lead levels exceeding acceptable levels.

 Boston Valley, at 7476 Back Creek Road, recorded 26 sinks and 13 water fountains showing elevated levels of lead.

A letter from Michael Cornell, Hamburg's superintendent of schools, indicated the water samples were tested by an independent laboratory. A total of 107 sites within the six schools contained lead above the New York State maximum acceptable level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

The affected fixtures were immediately removed from service and will remain unavailable until the lead issue is remediated, stated Cornell in the letter.

Fredonia Central School District  sampled 604 drinking water fixtures and found that 205 samples exceeded the action level of 15 ppb. Of the 205 samples that exceeded acceptable levels, 102 were taken in areas that did not require testing and do not require remediation, stated the report on the district website. Of the other 103 samples that exceeded acceptable lead levels, 61 require remediation, with 55 of the 61 samples from water sources other than drinking fountains.

The new state regulations require all water fixtures on school property that could be used for drinking and cooking to be sampled for lead. The first round of samples was required to be collected in September and October of this year. Future samples must be collected every five years starting in 2020.

Dr. Myron Glick, who founded Jericho Road Family Practice in Buffalo, urged parents not to panic in the wake of water testing results.

“Let’s find out how serious the problem is, and what the serum lead levels are in the children. Screening for lead is the basic job of any doctor who takes care of children,” Glick said. “It’s a fact of life.”

“We know what happened in Flint, Mich.," he said. "It’s a public health issue that is linked to an aging infrastructure.  My point is that in today’s society with older housing stock and water supplies, some fraction of lead will always be found in the bodies of most children."

The way to screen children for lead, Glick explained, is a blood test -- either through a prick of the finger or a blood draw of one vial. The greatest risk of lead exposure is to infants, young children and pregnant women, he said.

Lead in water usually comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. To help reduce the chances of lead in drinking water at home, the EPA issued the following guidelines:

 Flush your pipes before drinking, and only use cold water for consumption. The more time water has been sitting in your home's pipes, the more lead it may contain.

 Anytime the water in a particular faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, "flush" your cold-water pipes by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get. This could take as little as five to 30 seconds if there has been recent heavy water use such as showering or toilet flushing. Otherwise, it could take two minutes or longer. Your water utility will inform you if longer flushing times are needed to respond to local conditions.

 Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking, cooking, and especially for making baby formula. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead.

Dan Herbeck contributed to this report.

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