Since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, many states have passed legislation requiring public schools to assess and treat lead in their drinking water. Two Princeton University researchers examined efforts by New York City, the nation’s largest school district, to determine the effectiveness of its lead reduction strategies.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin which, if ingested, can affect almost every organ system in the body and seriously disrupt the physical development of children. Federal regulations on lead in products like paint, gasoline, and plumbing have dramatically reduced the incidence of lead exposure in the United States in recent decades.
Yet lead poisoning continues to impact people, especially those of color and low socioeconomic status. National estimates from 1999 to 2016 show that black children between the ages of 1 and 5 had consistently higher blood lead levels than white children. Additionally, people living in areas with a high black population reported significantly higher blood lead levels than people living in predominantly white areas.
“The crisis in Flint, Mich., Has served as a reminder that lead poisoning remains a serious threat to human health,” said study co-author Jennifer L. Jennings, professor of sociology and business public at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. “We analyzed the major remediation efforts of the New York City School District in the hopes of determining the effectiveness of their strategies, in hopes of preventing another Flint-like situation.”
Jennings conducted the study with Scott Latham, associate researcher. Together, they gathered and analyzed data from the New York City Department of Education, which conducted drinking water assessments in every school building during the 2016 to 2017 school year.
Before lead remediation efforts, the average New York City student attended a school site where 8% of watering devices – like water fountains and water bottle filling stations – tested at 15 parts of lead per billion parts of water (ppb), the US Environmental Agency’s primary âaction levelâ. The researchers used the education data to analyze lead exposure among racial groups and found that black students attended schools with the most water facilities with high lead levels.
All water devices tested at âaction levelâ were immediately removed and returned only after being measured to safer levels. Other buildings with older water fixtures or at least one fixture with high levels have undergone routine flushing, hose replacements or filter installations. Newer devices have been monitored for future maintenance.
After New York City public schools were rated and treated for lead, the percentage of water facilities that were first tested at “action level” dropped dramatically. In 2018, the average student attended a school where 5.3% of water supply devices were tested above the intervention threshold, a decrease of 2.7%. On average, black college students saw the greatest reduction in lead exposure than white, Hispanic, or Asian college students.
Through its remediation efforts, the New York City Department of Education has made immense strides in reducing lead levels in drinking water in schools. Today, however, most New York City students attend a school where at least 1 in 20 alcohol devices are still tested above the action level.
Jennings and Latham theorize that this may be due to city testing protocols. Lead levels in the same tap water can vary widely depending on water temperature, flow rate, length of stagnation, and the season of the year. Metal is therefore extremely prone to false negatives.
Yet New York City’s progress demonstrates that removing and treating water devices containing high levels of lead can be an effective method of improving drinking water safety. Researchers point to the need for more documentation of lead exposure in schools and fathers’ research into additional remedial techniques.
âRising water temperatures, greater seasonal variability in precipitation and more extreme weather events across the country due to climate change all have the potential to worsen lead levels in drinking water. It is imperative that we continue to document and analyze exposure in schools, student subgroups and communities, âJennings said.
The researchers hope that future policies targeting lead exposure and monitoring involve repeated testing of the water under various conditions. Reducing and eliminating lead in drinking water is essential to the health and safety of children, students, and racially and socially vulnerable populations across the country.