Unsafe Lead Levels in Water at 30 Newark Schools

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By Leslie A. Pappas

March 10 — Investigators are still searching for the source of high levels of lead found in the water at 30 schools in Newark, N.J., the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection told Bloomberg BNA March 10.

A day after the DEP and Newark Public Schools jointly announced they had found elevated levels of lead at various water taps in 30 district school buildings, the DEP said it is still “in the process of evaluating” exactly where the lead is coming from, whether chemicals in the water are causing or accelerating corrosion and what can be done next to fix the problem.

“We are working out the details,” DEP spokesman Larry Hajna told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail March 10. “More testing will be done soon.”

The discovery comes on the heels of a drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., where residents recently sued the state, city and a number of public officials over contaminated drinking water that potentially exposed more than 8,000 children to high concentrations of lead .

An Old District

The Newark School District is one of the largest and oldest school systems in New Jersey, dating back to 1676. It has 66 schools, 5,595 employees and 35,054 students. According to numbers on the district's website, about 55 percent of the student body is African-American and 43 percent is Hispanic.

Newark Public Schools notified the DEP on March 7 that the results of their annual testing found 59 out of 300 samples had lead concentrations above 15 parts per billion, the threshold at which the Environmental Protection Agency requires additional testing, monitoring, and remediation. No building had more than four samples above the EPA's action level, and the DEP confirmed that lead was not found in the Newark Water Department's source water.

In a letter to families at the affected schools, the district said it had turned off all water fountains at the schools and would supply bottled water for drinking and food preparation.

Many Possible Sources

The lead found in the Newark schools' drinking water could be coming from any number of sources, experts told Bloomberg BNA.

Without knowing how or where the samples were taken, it's difficult to tell from the test result data alone what is causing the problem, Phil Worby, environmental chemistry laboratory director at EMSL Analytical, Inc., a testing laboratory headquartered in Cinnaminson, N.J., told Bloomberg BNA. A sample taken from a drinking fountain that is used often, for example, might show lower lead concentrations than a sample taken from a little-used janitor's sink in the school basement because the water hasn't been sitting for a long time in the pipe absorbing the metal.

Lead can leach into water at any point from when it is first sitting in the pipe leading to the building to when it flows out of the tap, according to Ed Eichen, an environmental engineer and principle of The Oak Group Inc., an independent engineering and consulting firm in Camden, N.J., that is licensed to do lead testing and remediation.

“It might be clean all the way up to the point it hits somebody's house,” Eichen told Bloomberg BNA in a phone call March 10. “and it hits lead piping or a lead fixture... and then you've undone all the treatment efforts.”

While corrosion of old pipes, lead solder and fixtures are common culprits, they aren't the only possible source of lead, Eichen said. For example, there could be a breach in a pipe somewhere that is allowing untreated groundwater to contaminate the system. Water contamination could also be a one-time event, Eichen said. For example, a plume of contamination could occur in the groundwater, pass through a treatment facility, and turn up in testing after it already passed out of the treatment plant.

In a fact sheet released March 7, the DEP said that in the vast majority of cases, lead enters drinking water when it leaches from lead pipes, household fixtures containing lead, or lead solder.

Michael Klein, a engineer registered in New Jersey and expert in water delivery systems at Robson Forensic, told Bloomberg BNA March 10 that water fountains could be a likely source of lead, depending on the age of the school.

“They likely have copper piping sweat-fitted with solder that’s lead based,” he said. When the fountains sit unused overnight, lead could build up.

“The problem with drinking fountains is they don’t get flushed out,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Leslie A. Pappas in Philadelphia at lpappas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com