School Water Testing: Too Little Too Late?

School bus

The fact that lead can leach out of pipes into drinking water and poison people is not a recent discovery. The ancient Romans had lead in their pipes and realized exposure to too much lead could result in serious health problems, including insanity and death, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA warned schools of possible lead contamination in 2005.

If this knowledge goes back hundreds of years, why are New Jersey schools just now testing water? Students may have been exposed to high levels of lead for years, maybe decades, without anyone knowing about it.

A couple of dominos fell, according to a recent article on First mismanagement of Flint, Michigan’s public water supply, resulting in high levels of lead in city water, became known in 2015. Next Newark schools did their own water testing in March, and the results were so bad that drinking water supplies were shut off in thirty schools.

NJ Advance Media surveyed state school systems on the issue (15 districts responded) and gained some insight from those running local schools.

  • Some school districts have no record of water testing, so testing may never have been done.
  • Most respondents did no annual testing before tests were conducted this year. Some admitted they had no testing done in more than a decade, going as far back as 1993 in Montclair.
  • Many schools were built before 1986, when the use of lead in pipes was banned. Some districts stated they don’t know if there is lead or lead soldering in their schools’ pipes.
  • Most districts that responded stated they have multiple buildings that were built before the ban, dating as far back as the 1880s.
  • Every district that replied to the survey stated that since the news of the lead problem in Newark broke, tests have been done in recent weeks or will be done soon.

Gov. Chris Christie announced in May that all New Jersey schools will be required to test for lead. Schools in Elizabeth and Paterson were found to have elevated lead levels in their water in prior years, but parents were never informed. The problem of lead-contaminated water in Newark schools was known at least as far back as 2012, but parents weren’t told about it.

Since local school water testing started this year, traces of lead higher than the EPA’s action level have been found in several schools, including those in the Bridgewater-Raritan, New Brunswick, West-Windsor Plainsboro, Princeton and Parsippany school districts.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, blamed the absence of water testing on a lack of awareness. Most schools get their water from the local municipality or water company. Testing for lead in their water has never been required (as sensible as those tests are), and the water suppliers test it before the water enters the schools.

Bozza claims districts didn’t think their water could be contaminated by lead pipes or lead soldering before it came out of a water fountain or sink inside the building. There are a couple of reasons that excuse doesn’t carry much water:

  • In 2002, Camden school shut down water fountains in older buildings and switched to bottled water due to high lead levels well above the EPA action limit.
  • Testing in Jersey City schools three years ago showed water from nearly 200 water fountains and sinks contained lead contamination.

The health toll on students is unknown, but the mismanagement of the state’s schools’ water quality is increasingly being made clear. If you believe your child has been injured due to lead poisoning at his or her school, call the Law Offices of James C. DeZao at (973) 358-6134 or fill out our contact form so we can talk about the situation, how the law may apply and how you may be able to collect compensation for your child’s injuries.

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