Districts now required to test lead in drinking water

Published in the January 2017 NJEA Review  
By Adrienne Markowitz and Eileen Senn

In response to mounting pressure on the Christie administration, the first steps are finally being taken to protect New Jersey’s public school staff and students from elevated levels of lead in drinking water. In July 2016, the New Jersey State Board of Education amended its regulations to require all public school districts to test for lead at all outlets used for drinking and food preparation as soon as practical but no later than July 13, 2017. Re-testing is required every six years and whenever changes are made to plumbing. Results are required to be posted in schools and on district board of education websites within 24 hours of review. 

In addition, districts are required to stop the use of any drinking water outlets where water quality exceeds the lead action level and ensure that alternate safe drinking water is made available. Districts must provide written notification of elevated levels to families and the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) describing these actions. Families must also be given information on the health effects of lead.

Glass of tap waterMore and more districts are testing and finding elevated lead levels, illustrating the need for the regulations. They include Bergenfield, Bridgewater-Raritan, Cherry Hill, Denville, Ewing, Hamilton (Mercer), Lawrenceville, Leonia, Moorestown, Newark, New Brunswick, New Providence, Paterson, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Princeton, Trenton and West Windsor-Plainsboro.

Coalition maintaining pressure

Under the DOE expedited procedure, there were no public hearings or comments. The new regulations are effective for only one year. The State Board will have to go through a more public process over the next year to put permanent rules in place.

A broad coalition continues to lobby for passage of an actual law, as was done in the state of New York in September. The coalition is seeking stronger language on remediation, sufficient funds for testing and remediation measures, coverage of private and parochial schools and early childcare centers, and provisions for enforcement. Pressure has been generated by the introduction of several pieces of legislation including S-2082/A-3539.

Coalition members include the NJEA, AFTNJ, Garden State Coalition of Schools, Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the state PTA, Isles, N.J. Citizen Action, Environment N.J., the N.J. Work Environment Council, and Healthy Schools Now. The Association of School Administrators, The N.J. School Boards Association, and the N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association have also lent a degree of support. 

Sampling and interpretation

First-draw 250 ml samples of stagnant water that has sat for at least eight hours must be collected before school opens and any flushing or use occurs. If initial test results reveal lead concentrations greater than the action level for a given outlet, follow-up flush testing must be done to determine if the lead contamination is from the outlet or from interior plumbing. Samples must be analyzed by a lab certified in New Jersey.

The current lead action level is 15 micrograms of lead per liter of water (ug/L), which is the same as parts per billion (ppb). However, no amount of lead in drinking water, at any age or any level, is considered safe, not even the level of 10 ppb recommended by the World Health Organization or the 1 ppb recommended in 2016 by the American Association of Pediatrics.

All locations at a school facility, other facility, or temporary facility, where water is expected to be used for consumption or food preparation, must be tested. This includes:

  • Drinking water outlets at school athletic fields, concession stands and satellite buildings.
  • Drinking water fountains and bubblers
  • Ice machines
  • Kitchen faucets
  • Cafeteria taps
  • Food preparation sinks
  • Teacher lounge sinks
  • Nurse's office sinks

Sinks in common area bathrooms are not locations where water is expected to be consumed; and therefore, do not meet the definition of a drinking water outlet. Such sinks should be labeled not for drinking.

Districts can seek an exemption from the initial testing if they can demonstrate that they complied with the testing requirements outlined in the regulations within the five years prior to July 13, 2016. Districts can seek a one-year extension if they cannot find a certified lab available to do the testing by July 13, 2017. They must document that they contacted at least three labs.

Protocols must be followed and documented

Districts must follow New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) protocols when planning and carrying out sampling. NJDEP suggests directors of buildings and grounds, business administrators and senior people from the facilities office attend their full-day training. A minimum of two staff members must create documentation of all that they do and sign an annual statement of assurances that testing and notification were done properly and that alternate drinking water continues to be made available. These staff people must attend the NJDEP training but are not “certified.” Documents districts are required to create using NJDEP templates include:

  • List of schools
  • Plumbing profile
  • Water outlet inventory
  • Filter inventory
  • Flushing log
  • Pre-sampling water use certification
  • Chain of custody for samples
  • Excel spreadsheet of lead results
  • Announcement and results letters

Reimbursement for testing but not remediation

Schools may seek reimbursement of the cost of collecting the original water samples, laboratory testing and analysis through the NJDOE, which has $10 million to dispense. At an estimated cost of $20 a sample, this is enough money for about 200 samples for each of 2,500 schools. Reimbursement is being used as an incentive for districts to test. Schools may only seek reimbursement for costs incurred after July 13, 2016. Therefore districts, such as Newark, that tested earlier are not eligible. The only samples eligible for reimbursement are the original samples, not samples collected following remediation efforts or flush sample analysis where the initial sample did not exceed the limit.

No money has been allocated for remediation efforts yet. However, bills have been introduced appropriating $20 million for remediation. Amounting to about $8,000 for each of 2,500 schools, this is unlikely to be enough to pay for all the remediation that will be needed, especially if coverage is extended to 500 private and parochial schools and 4,000 early childcare centers.

Local association action plan

NJEA local associations have a critical role to play in ensuring school districts test properly and get the lead out of drinking water. The NJEA organizing approach described in Ten Steps to School Health and Safety listed under “For more information.” It is a valuable guide to effective action—documenting problems, educating and assisting members, mobilizing with parents and community coalitions, negotiating with the school district, and putting pressure on the school board.

The local association should work with its UniServ field representative to obtain a timetable from the district and school board of how they will comply with the new NJDOE testing regulations. Once results are available, local associations should publicize them and ask members to check that outlets with elevated levels have been removed from service.

Don’t settle for water in plastic bottles

Addressing elevated lead levels in school drinking water typically requires temporary and permanent solutions. If only a few water outlets test high for lead, those that test low can be utilized to a greater degree. If significant numbers of fountains and outlets are shut down, school districts are likely to provide water in plastic bottles. Providing case upon case of water in plastic bottles is expensive and will create logistical, heavy-lifting and disposal problems at both the school and community level. The bottles may also leach chemicals like phthalates into the water. Locals should insist that bottled water be only a short-term measure.

Locals should insist that districts use better ways to provide lead-free drinking water than plastic water bottles. Each option has its own considerations such as cost, use of electricity, need for cups or reusable bottles, cleaning and maintenance, staff and student preferences and student age. These are covered in detail in Water Works, listed under “For more information.”

  • Tap water dispensers: Refillable containers with a spout for self-serving into a cup or reusable bottle. Dispensers are filled from a lead-free tap. Athletic departments often already have such dispensers.
  • Point-of-use water machines: Bottleless water coolers that hook into a lead-free tap water line. A button is pressed for self-service into a cup or reusable bottles. Some units are compatible with filtration systems.
  • Bottle fillers: Stations for filling reusable water bottles with or without a traditional drinking water spout. Hook directly into a lead-free tap water line. Some units are compatible with filtration systems.

Permanent remediation measures recommended by the EPA include replacing pipes, fixtures, faucets, or water fountains containing lead with lead-free alternatives; installing activated carbon filters or reverse osmosis units on faucets known as point-of-use devices; relocating grounding wires; reconfiguring plumbing to bypass lead sources; and installing corrosion control devices for individual buildings, known as point-of-entry devices.  

Adrienne Markowitz holds a Master of Science degree in Industrial Hygiene from Hunter College, City University of New York. Eileen Senn holds a Master of Science degree in Occupational Health from Temple University in Philadelphia. They are consultants with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.

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