Saturday, March 26, 2016



By Michael Wines, Patrick McGeehan and John Schwartz | The New York Times |

MARCH 26, 2016  ::  JERSEY CITY — Anxious parents may wonder how a major school system like Newark’s could overlook lead in the drinking water of 30 schools and 17,000 students. The answer: It was easy. They had to look only a few miles away, at the century-old classrooms of the schools here, across the Hackensack River.

The Jersey City Public Schools district discovered lead contamination in eight schools’ drinking fountains in 2006, and in more schools in 2008, 2010 and 2012. But not until 2013 did officials finally chart a comprehensive attack on lead, which by then had struck all but six schools.

This winter’s crisis in Flint, Mich., has cast new attention on lead in water supplies. But problems with lead in school water supplies have dragged on for years — aggravated by ancient buildings and plumbing, prolonged by official neglect and tight budgets, and enabled by a gaping loophole in federal rules that largely exempts schools from responsibility for the purity of their water.

Children are at greatest risk from lead exposure, and school is where they spend much of their early lives. But cash-starved school administrators may see a choice between spending money on teachers or on plumbing as no choice at all.

“They feel it’s almost better not to sample, because you’re better off not knowing,” Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech University civil engineering professor who has fought for lead safety nationwide, said in an interview.

The problem is persistent and widespread. Baltimore’s public schools switched entirely to bottled water in 2007 because ripping out the lead plumbing would have been impractical. Sebring, Ohio, found elevated lead levels in August after workers had stopped adding an anti-corrosion chemical to the water supply.

THE LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT allotted $19.8 million in September to retrofit or remove its 48,000 drinking fountains to erase a small but tenacious lead threat. Ithaca, N.Y., schools switched temporarily to bottled water in January after water tests found elevated lead levels at two schools.

Congress could easily have cracked down on lead in schools. In fact, it once did. The 1988 Lead Contamination Control Act required schools to scrap lead-lined water coolers, test drinking water and remedy any contamination they found. But a federal appeals court struck down part of the law affecting schools in 1996. And while some states have devised their own lead-testing rules, federal lawmakers have yet to revisit the issue.

The only regulation left is a 1991 rule by the federal Environmental Protection Agency requiring periodic tests for lead and copper by most public water systems, whether the supplier is a big utility or a well in a trailer park or campground.

But although schools and day care centers are the main sources of water for children on most weekdays, only the few schools that operate their own wells fall under the rule. The vast majority of schools use treated water from utilities.

And while the utilities test their water, virtually all lead contamination occurs inside schools — in lead pipes, water-cooler coils and linings, and in leaded-metal fountains and taps.

“If you’re a mom-and-pop coffee shop in Sparta, New Jersey, and have a private well, you’re required to certify every quarter,” said Robert Barrett, the chief executive of Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories, a New Jersey environmental testing laboratory. “But if you’re a school, you don’t have to do anything.”

Mr. Barrett, whose firm tests water in 13 states, said the Newark and Flint revelations prompted reassessments by schools and other institutions that had not scrutinized their plumbing in years, if ever.

“No one was testing,” he said. “Now all of a sudden they’re all going crazy.”

In Newark, where school officials disclosed elevated lead levels earlier this month, Mr. Barrett’s firm began testing water systemwide on March 19. Students at the 30 schools now drink bottled water, and the youngest students were offered free blood tests.

There, as in LOS ANGELES, high lead levels persisted even though workers flush the water pipes every weekday to push out lead that accumulates overnight. Nor did some filters on Newark school fountains reduce contamination sufficiently.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says children whose blood lead content exceeds five micrograms per deciliter — 50 parts per billion, or less than a millionth of an ounce in a pint — should see a doctor. High blood lead levels can stunt a child’s mental development and damage a range of organs. But even smaller amounts can affect children’s intellectual development, and the agency says no level of lead is safe.

The E.P.A.’s 1991 lead rule — the one that requires most public water systems to periodically test for lead and copper — limits the amount of lead in drinking water to no more than 15 parts per billion. The rule is being revised, though, and that limit could soon be lowered. Even though the rule does not apply to most schools, districts that do monitor drinking water generally use it as a guideline.

Tainted water is not the biggest source of lead exposure in humans; on average, the E.P.A. says, it makes up about a fifth of contamination. Pregnant women working in schools are at greatest risk because fetuses are most profoundly affected by contamination. Women face an increased risk of miscarriage, along with potential organ damage and developmental problems in the baby.
Schools built before 1986, when an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act banned lead plumbing, pose the greatest hazard. Fountains may be fed water through lead pipes commonly used in the early 20th century. Older water coolers may have lead linings and components.

But even newer buildings can face a threat. Under industry pressure, Congress defined “lead-free” in the amendment as no more than 8 percent lead. Plumbing hardware like faucets and connectors often contained that much lead until 2013, when the permissible level fell to near zero.

LOS ANGELES school officials learned of the 8-percent rule the hard way. In the 131 schools built over the last decade, the district installed thousands of water fountains with long-lasting brass fittings to reduce maintenance costs. They later discovered that the leaded brass fittings tainted the water in some fountains beyond the E.P.A.’s lead standard.

The district’s $19.8 million lead initiative seeks, in part, to correct that. “The approach we’re taking now is to get rid of anything with a brass fitting,” Roger Finstad, the district’s maintenance and operations director, said.

In New York City, officials have uprooted and replaced all lead pipes leading from water mains into schools, swiftly replaced equipment when tests showed high lead levels, and ordered weekly pipe flushing at any school with a violation. All schools’ water is regularly tested. The result? Only 1.3 percent of nearly 90,000 water tests have exceeded the city’s lead threshold. The program is “a model for the nation,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, an expert on lead and a professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

That scorched-earth approach is the surest way to control lead threats, but few school systems have the money or knowledge to pursue it. Many instead follow a whack-a-mole strategy, testing a sample of water sources, then fixing or disabling ones with excessive lead concentrations.

That can be ineffective, because the levels at any fountain or tap can swing wildly as residue breaks loose in lead plumbing. Dr. Edwards, the Virginia Tech specialist, recalled testing a single tap 10 times. Eight tests judged the water perfectly safe. The other two showed “astronomical amounts of lead,” he said, “like eating five to 10 paint chips.”

“This is like Russian roulette,” he said.

So it was in Newark, where the E.P.A. sampled water in 2003 as part of an outreach program on lead, and found contamination in three schools. The district began replacing school water fountains and installing filters on violating water sources, but never got ahead of the problem. From 2012 through 2015, nearly one in eight water samples exceeded the E.P.A.’s 15 parts-per-billion threshold.

“Did we know we had a problem? Yes,” said Marion A. Bolden, Newark’s superintendent early last decade. “ Did we think we had adequately remediated the problem? Yes.”

Here in Jersey City, the public schools are classic candidates for a lead problem. Two-thirds are over 80 years old, and a third more than a century old. The system had been under state control since 1989 because of poor management and low test scores; only recently, with Marcia Lyles as the superintendent, did the state agree to return control to local officials.

Jersey City taps and fountains went untested until the E.P.A. took samples in 2006, again part of the federal outreach program, and turned up lead concentrations up to 60 times the federal threshold at eight schools. Not until early 2008, after more tests found fresh contamination at six of the schools, did the superintendent at the time, Charles T. Epps Jr., switch those students to bottled water.

Jersey City’s mayor then, Jerramiah Healy, declared the matter closed. “We believe this is a situation that is isolated to the affected schools and to certain water fountains within those schools,” T he Jersey Journal newspaper quoted him as saying.

Mr. Healy was wrong. The district tested all its fountains and taps in mid-2008 and found that water in 27 more schools was as much as 80 times higher than the E.P.A.’s lead threshold. Under pressure from advocates, the district tested selected water sources at 38 buildings in 2010 and found yet more lead. In a 98-year-old school, Nicolaus Copernicus Elementary, 16 of 19 water fountains and coolers were found above permissible levels.

That school and some others were switched to bottled water, and fountains and taps were turned off. But that was not the end.

A 2013 retest of all 2,000-plus water sources found yet more contamination, including one fountain whose water tested 853 times the accepted maximum. Among those water sources were 10 in prekindergarten classes where daily tooth brushing was part of the regimen.

“Any fountains in this building, they don’t even work,” the Nicolaus Copernicus principal, Diane Pistilli, said this week. “Parents were concerned, and rightly so.”

Michael Wines reported from Jersey City, and Patrick McGeehan and John Schwartz from New York. Kate Taylor contributed reporting from New York, and Tyler Alicea from Ithaca, N.Y. Alain Delaquérière and Doris Burke contributed research.




New York Times |

MARCH 26, 2016  ::  While the water crisis in Flint, Mich., has focused attention on water safety, many of the country’s 13,500 public school districts take the purity of their water for granted, experts say. Yet lead contamination has been found in schools nationwide.

Michael Wines, Patrick McGeehan and John Schwartz, who have been writing about water safety for The New York Times, recently discussed some of what they have found in their reporting. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

JOHN SCHWARTZ: One of the frustrating things about federal regulations on water safety is that they apply only to exactly what they apply to — that is, they extend only as far as their enabling legislation allows. In the case of regulating drinking water, the regulations generally apply to suppliers of water, like your town water plant. When Congress tried to stretch the rules to apply them to schools through the Lead Contamination Control Act, the federal courts said the federal government could not order the states around that way. Congress has not done anything on the issue since then, so compliance with the Lead Contamination Control Act is voluntary. And so it’s not surprising that things slip through the cracks.

PATRICK MCGEEHAN: Still, John, many people seem taken aback to learn that there is no mandatory testing of water in schools. They may have had a false sense of security because they receive regular reports on the results of water testing in their towns. But those results may not include any schools. Momentum is building for change, though. In New Jersey, legislators are already calling for a law to make sure the water in schools gets tested for lead.

SCHWARTZ: It really is hard to assign responsibility or blame for the problem. Is it the federal E.P.A., state or city regulators, or school district officials? I might just go a little weaselly here and say “all of the above.” There’s no part of the system that hasn’t failed our kids when it comes to lead even though the laws have done a tremendous amount to remove lead from our environment — from gasoline, from paint, from plumbing fixtures. What’s left can be chalked up to a failure of will at every level, with occasional crises that can place the blame more on one link in the chain than another.

MICHAEL WINES: I’d add our political leaders to the list. Efforts to rid our homes and water of lead have lost government support and money in the last decade as so-called discretionary spending has been slashed from the federal budget. We don’t even properly track lead levels in adults anymore. The federal government stopped funding state grants for adult lead surveillance in 2013, and though it has restored part of the money, at least 13 states have stopped collecting data. Some of the 28 that still do collect data help pay for it with money from federal grants that are meant for other lead programs.

SCHWARTZ: Another issue is so-called environmental injustice — concerns that officials ignore complaints about the water supply from poorer minority communities. In Flint, a report by an independent task force focused on these concerns. They are part of the story of the problems in school districts, but not the whole story. As our story shows, some new schools have shown up with lead problems, too, because the school districts paid higher prices for brass plumbing fittings that contained lead.

MCGEEHAN: I have been struck by how genuinely disappointed scientific experts seem with the response, or lack thereof, from government officials who have seen data showing high lead levels. Over and over, I heard that little or no action was taken after tests showed alarmingly high levels of lead in water that kids are ingesting on a daily basis.

SCHWARTZ: What about adults? There is no safe level of lead, and each of us grown-ups probably has fewer I.Q. points than we would have if there wasn’t lead in the environment when we were kids. I wonder how much better off we’d be if we’d gotten the lead out earlier, and more effectively. Remember that lead also has been linked to behavior problems, including impulse control and aggression.

WINES: All of us probably do have lead in our bodies, John, and there used to be a lot more. Back in 1976, when leaded gasoline was still the norm, the lead blood level for an average American was 12.8 micrograms per deciliter. By today’s standards, that’s shockingly high. More recent data, from 2009 and later, put the level at 1.2 micrograms for adults and 1.8 for kids, who are far more vulnerable to lead’s effects than grown-ups. Some of the danger does decline with age; infants and toddlers are at greatest risk.

So aren’t the adults who were kids in the 1970s largely productive members of society today? Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have been even more productive without so much lead in their bodies. Check out this study, which concludes that kids with a lead blood level above 7.5 micrograms have “significantly greater” intellectual deficits than kids below 7.5. Or this one, which blames blood-lead levels between 5 and 9 micrograms for a stunning share of failing grades in reading and math by Chicago third-graders. Many of us who were toddlers then are slightly dimmer bulbs, I.Q.-wise, than we would have been if we hadn’t been sucking in gas fumes.

MCGEEHAN: When you discuss even relatively low levels of lead with water-testing experts, their facial expressions and tones of voice tell you right away that there is cause for concern. If they’re worried, we all should be.

WINES: But don’t dwell on the past. Blood levels of lead not wildly far from the current national average are linked to heart troubles, clogged arteries, premature births, kidney disease and other nasty stuff. Add to that the social and financial cost we’re all paying for the unfortunate fraction of kids who really do have high blood-lead levels — mostly minorities and immigrants in poor neighborhoods. They will pay stiffer costs as adults in lost intellectual capacity, and a number of studies suggest that at least some violence by young men is tied to high levels of lead in babyhood.

MCGEEHAN: I am now dubious about the quality of the water my sons consumed at their suburban public schools. The data on our town’s water samples look fine, but it is possible that they do not reflect the situation in the schools. Some of those buildings are quite old, and that can create a problem. I’m now relieved when I see my sons and their schoolmates carrying bottled water, no matter the cost.

SCHWARTZ: This morning my New Jersey town sent a note to parents promising to share all testing information and stating that the most recent tests, in 2013, had shown no lead contamination. Parents should demand that information — and if there’s any doubt at all, send kids to school with a water bottle clipped to the backpack. But I’m no fan of bottled water, which creates waste problems and costs too much.

MCGEEHAN: I have occasionally sent my younger son off with a reusable one filled from the tap. But I probably won’t do that anymore, landfills be damned.

SCHWARTZ: By water bottle, Patrick, I meant that having your kids carry around a reusable bottle is a good idea, filled from the tap at home if you are comfortable with your own water supply. I just don’t like the disposable water bottles. Not that I want to start a huge argument or anything, but there were two million tons of plastic water bottles in landfills in 2005! Only 13 percent of plastic bottles get recycled. And the water isn’t necessarily any better than tap water, notes the Natural Resources Defense Council. Just sayin’.




by Tony Barboza and Ben Poston | LA Times |

March 26, 2016  ::  The state of California has blood test results showing high levels of lead in children living near the closed Exide battery plant in Vernon but is not using the information to direct its massive cleanup of lead-contaminated homes and yards.

Health experts say the test results should be used to help pinpoint neighborhoods most in need of swift cleanup because children there have been exposed to more of the poisonous metal. Lead, which spewed for decades from the Exide Technologies recycling facility, is especially dangerous to young children, putting them at risk of lifelong developmental and behavioral problems.

Blood-testing data have guided government responses to lead contamination elsewhere. In Flint, Mich., the state is using maps of children's blood lead levels to target neighborhoods hardest hit by the city's lead-contaminated drinking water.

But in California, officials have been unable to launch a similar effort. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control said it has tried unsuccessfully for more than two years to obtain blood lead levels from state and county health agencies, which keep the records.

In September, 13 months after the cleanup began, it formally requested census tract-level data but still hasn't received it from state health officials. So the department is relying on soil tests, wind patterns and proximity to the plant to guide its cleanup of thousands of homes.

The state Department of Public Health has yet to provide the information, according to toxics regulators. The health agency said it is prohibited by medical privacy law from releasing data showing individual test results but is finalizing an extensive analysis of whether people in census tracts near the Exide plant have increased blood lead levels.

The toxic substances department said it knows of only two children — a baby and a toddler — who have had high levels of lead in their blood across the contaminated southeast Los Angeles County communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Maywood and Vernon. Officials learned of the children because their families told the department about their blood test results.

To gauge the extent of the problem, The Times obtained and analyzed blood test records from the Los Angles County Department of Public Health. The analysis found that 547 people under the age of 21 living in the Exide cleanup area tracts had high levels of lead in their blood from 2010 to 2014.

Elevated levels are defined as 5 micrograms or more per deciliter of blood, the threshold used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young children with levels above 5 are among the highest 3% tested nationwide.

The county records analyzed by The Times are not as complete as the data held by the state health department, which collects the results of all blood lead screenings in California. Not all children are tested, however, so the data are considered an underestimate.

In an effort to boost testing near the Exide plant, the L.A. County Department of Public Health has for two years administered an Exide-funded, voluntary blood-screening program ordered by state toxics regulators.

The state shares blood-testing information with county health officials, which are tasked with preventing lead poisoning. But the toxics department has not obtained summaries of those results to inform its cleanup, despite repeated requests, spokesman Jim Marxen said.

Public health experts say that's a serious limitation.

"Officials should rely on blood lead data and soil lead levels to identify hot spots and target cleanup," said Bruce Lanphear, a public health physician and professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University who studies lead and children's environmental health. "Otherwise they will be shooting in the dark."

Lead has contaminated as many as 10,000 properties within a 1.7-mile radius of the Exide plant, according to state regulators. Exide took over the car battery smelting facility in 2000. The company and the previous owners were cited repeatedly for violating hazardous waste laws.

The plant closed permanently in March 2015 under a deal with federal prosecutors. The closure followed a criminal investigation and community outrage toward state regulators, who had allowed Exide to operate for decades without a full permit.

The cleanup began in 2014 and has been dogged by community complaints that state officials have dragged their feet on an urgent health threat.

The contamination was discovered months before high lead levels were found in the water in Flint, yet authorities in Michigan are already using maps of children's blood lead levels to target neighborhoods for water sampling, lead line replacement, bottled water and filters, said Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University.

Hanna-Attisha, whose research showed an increase in children with elevated blood lead levels after a change in the city's water supply, said such screening data have been used in communities across the U.S. to find neighborhoods in need of intervention.

"It's easy," she said. "And it should be done more."

In California, community groups and researchers began asking long ago for state officials to use blood-screening data in the cleanup and to release the information to the public in an effort to protect children.

Once the exposures have occurred, there's no amount of special education, nothing that can rewind the clock. — Jane Williams, director of California Communities Against Toxics

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the areas near Exide, called the use of blood lead levels "very important" to the cleanup.

"There shouldn't be any reason why we don't know what's happening," Solis said. "If people don't prioritize that, then they're going to look over these communities."

Lead is a powerful neurotoxin for which there is no safe level of exposure. Even small amounts have been shown to lower IQs, reduce academic achievement and lead to permanent health and learning deficiencies.

Blood testing is typically ordered by physicians for children under age 6, who are most at risk of irreversible toxic effects from ingesting lead in contaminated soil, dust, water and paint.

Community groups, environmentalists and elected officials in the predominantly low-income Latino neighborhoods around the facility scored a victory last month when Gov. Jerry Brown announced a plan to spend $176.6 million to sample 10,000 homes and clean the roughly 25% most contaminated of them over the next two years.

But the funding legislation has not yet been approved. And with full remediation expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, state officials will have to make tough decisions about where to direct limited resources first.

Soil sampling of several hundred homes near Exide has found that about 99% have lead levels that require cleanup, according to the toxics department.

The department estimates 2,500 homes may have lead exceeding 1,000 parts million — the state's threshold for hazardous waste. The state's screening level for residential soil is 80 parts per million.

Homes with the highest soil concentrations, along with those with bare soil or young children, are being given higher priority. Any home where a child is found to have elevated blood lead level also "goes to the top of the list," Marxen said.

The mother of one of the two children known to have higher lead levels told the toxics department in November that her 16-month-old baby had a blood lead level of between 7 and 8 micrograms per deciliter. Tests of the Maywood home found lead concentrations of 400 to 1,000 parts per million and the contaminated soil was removed in February, according to the department.

The department learned about the other child in April 2015 during a phone call between a toxics department employee and a Boyle Heights mother who said her toddler had a blood lead level of 9.9 micrograms per deciliter.

The woman was referred to the county health department and her yard was cleaned up, the department said.

Authorities have advised residents awaiting soil testing and cleanup to take precautions: Wash hands and toys, keep children from playing on bare soil and take off their shoes before they enter their homes.

Grace and Everett Potvin, whose Commerce home was found to have lead levels requiring cleanup, have ripped out tomato and chile plants from their small garden and restricted the places their grandchildren can play outside.

"My priority is this little boy," Grace Potvin said as her 2-year-old grandson Shaun played in the living room. "I don't want him to be mentally disabled or any problems health-wise."

Potvin urged government officials to take all necessary action to protect the health of children in her neighborhood. "Take care of it," she said. "Take care of it."

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