International Lead Poisoning Prevention week starts on Oct. 24, reminding us that our children need to drink water that does not contain lead – not only at home, but also in school.
Even low levels of lead can cause lifelong health and behavioral problems, including serious damage to developing brains. Major public health agencies and organizations – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics – all agree that there is no safe level of lead for children.
Five years ago, New York was a leader among states in requiring all drinking water taps in public schools to be tested for lead and remediated if the test results were over the action level. New York is no longer the leader. But New York can act now to again become a leader in protecting its children from the toxic impacts of lead.
The state Legislature unanimously passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried in June that would make New York’s school drinking water program stronger and would better protect our children. The biggest improvement this legislation would bring is the requirement to lower the lead action level from the current 15 parts per billion to 5 ppb.
The New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund estimates that remediation to the lower action level in the pending bills would cost $30 million. The state’s clean water infrastructure fund has more than $2 billion in it, plenty of money to pay for strengthening New York’s school drinking water program and protecting our children from the toxic effects of lead.
The data for schools in Western New York is alarming. The New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund discovered an additional 63,428 drinking water outlets in public schools statewide tested between 15 ppb and 5 ppb, representing an average of 17.2% that would need to be remediated to meet 5 ppb. Western New York schools averaged 21.5%, higher than the state average and second highest among all regions in New York State.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that drinking water can contribute 20% of the lead in children. Lead is introduced into school drinking water from the lead plumbing and fixtures within the schools – it does not come from the water utility. Lead can leach and flake off from the school plumbing and drinking water fixtures.
The legislature has taken a significant step – now, Gov. Kathy Hochul must sign this bill to secure safe drinking water in schools, and fund this much-improved program.
Warren M. Seigel, M.D., is the New York State district II chairman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.