It’s time to get the lead out.
Drinking water at McKinley Junior High School in Bay Ridge contained dangerously high levels of lead — in some cases higher than those found in Flint, Michigan last year — the city discovered in January.
Students who drank from hallway fountains, classroom sinks, or used a kitchen ice maker in recent months could have ingested enough lead to cause permanent cardiovascular or neurological damage, which makes the revelation particularly stunning, one toxicologist said.
“These lead levels are very disturbing and very surprising,” said Judith Zelikoff, a toxicologist and professor with the Department of Environmental Medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center. “If students ingested this water every day over months, they are at risk and their parents should have them tested for lead. There shouldn’t be any lead in the water. Period.”
In one case, lead levels exceeded the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s safety standard by more than 35 times, the Department of Education found when it tested 118 water samples at the middle school on Dec. 24, 2016, according to department records.
Lead in water is measured in parts per billion and if tests come back with lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion, the Environmental Protection Agency urges immediate steps to reduce the metal, such as replacing pipes and putting anti-corrosive chemicals in the water, according to the agency’s website.
Out of the samples taken at McKinley, roughly 12 percent came back with lead levels higher than 15 from an astounding 577 to a still troubling 26 parts per billion — exceeding the average lead levels researchers found in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water.
Ideally, there should not be any lead in drinking water because the metal is hazardous to humans even in low doses and can decrease kidney function, increase blood pressure, and cause reproductive problems in men and women, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
But children and adolescents are especially susceptible to lead because they have a higher absorption rate of the metal than adults, and students at McKinley who regularly drank the water during the semester are at risk for kidney problems, anemia, high blood pressure, learning disabilities, and could be more susceptible to infections, according to Zelikoff.
The Department of Education would not say if the agency is aware of how long lead was in the water and if the school has tested positive for lead in the past.
A letter explaining results was sent home with students and e-mailed to parents on Friday, Jan. 20, and some were shocked by the results.
“It’s alarming. You expect the water that your children have access to at school to be contaminate free,” said Bay Ridgite Christopher Robles, who now sends his daughter to school with bottled water. “We send our kids to get an education, not to get poisoned with lead.”
Robles added he thinks the school could do more to explain the problem to concerned parents.
“I don’t even know if all the parents have received this letter,” he said. “There should be a meeting to spell all of this out.”
The Department of Education claims the high-lead samples were taken from water sitting in the pipes overnight and could contain higher levels of lead than levels seen throughout the day, according to the letter sent to parents by the Department of Education.
“The risk to students and staff is low for many reasons,” the letter states. “The recent testing was conducted on water that had remained in pipes overnight. The lead concentration drops sharply after the first use of the day as stagnant water is cleared from the pipes and new, fresh water is brought in from the water main — which is virtually lead-free.”
But some of the levels are so high that it is unlikely the metal would drop to safe drinking levels during the day, said Zelikoff.
“Some of those levels are not going to go down to a normal or acceptable limit,” said Zelikoff. “Flushing the pipes out will help, but that won’t solve the problem. Those levels are pretty high. And they will stay pretty high.”
Department of Education officials claimed that everything possible was being done to keep kids safe, and said it plans to replace the corrosive pipes and, in the meantime, has taken the contaminated fixtures out of service.
“Parents can rest assured that water in New York City is of the highest quality in the world and we have stringent protocols and robust procedures in place to ensure that water in school buildings is safe for students and staff.” said Toya Holness, a spokeswoman for the agency. “This is standard protocol and there is no reason for alarm: we are continuing to provide students and staff with safe drinking water.”