New York City is failing the test on school drinking water

A first-grade class returns to the classroom.
A first-grade class returns to the classroom. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

My son, Ivan, 10, has a new morning ritual. He packs his homework folders into his backpack, eats breakfast, brushes his teeth, finds his elusive soccer shoes and eventually gets to the school bus. Now, he also fills a bottle of water from our tap, which he takes to school in his backpack.

It’s not much trouble to do this. But the reason for this addition to Ivan’s routine is an alarming one: Just before the start of this school year, he saw a newspaper headline about lead in water fountains in NYC public schools.

Adults usually should try to calm children’s fears. When Ivan — an enthusiastic carnivore — saw a report on the “Dr. Drew” TV show proclaiming that eating meat could be worse than smoking, I told him to relax. I still drink the water from his school’s fountains, and I’ve told him this, too.

Overall, the incidence of lead poisoning in NYC’s kids has declined, and the city points out that no child has tested positive for it as a result of drinking from school water fountains.

Still, he has reason to worry. Last month, The New York Times reported that city officials said fewer than 1 percent of water samples taken at 1,500 school buildings showed lead levels that exceeded federal rules. But the city allowed for a process called “flushing” in which water outlets are turned on fully for two hours the night before samples are taken.

Flushing temporarily lowers lead levels by cleaning many lead particles out of the pipes. That means there might be more lead in water in schools than initial tests indicated. And, we already had cause for concern. Even with the flushing, some schools’ lead levels exceeded federal standards.

Lead poisoning causes cognitive and developmental problems in children, which is why lead in school water has become a nationwide issue.

My son’s ritual aside, children and parents should freak out a little. According to the Times, a Sheepshead Bay elementary school and another in Staten Island were among those showing elevated levels of lead.

The state has now mandated a process to test lead in drinking fountains in schools. The city must properly test — and also begin to fix the crumbling plumbing systems that are causing the problem.

Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.