Lead in drinking water extends to schools, communities well beyond Flint, MI

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by Félix Pérez

The lead contamination of the water of Flint, Mich., particularly its effects on children, has generated national news and outrage for several months and was the subject of a congressional hearing last week. But it turns out the problem is much more widespread, with recent reports of elevated levels of lead revealed in schools across the nation.

The most alarming example arose this month in Newark, NJ, where as many as 17,000 students in 30 schools found to have elevated lead can opt for blood testing. School district officials ordered all drinking fountains at the schools be shut off until further tests can be conducted. As with Flint, students and staff at the schools are being provided bottled water and access to water coolers.

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Levels at the 30 buildings ranged from 15.6 parts per billion to 558 parts per billion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level is 15 parts per billion or higher. District officials revealed last week that similar elevated levels of lead were found in school drinking water dating as far back as 2012.

Lead levels in Flint, on the other hand, were as much as 13,200 parts per billion. The EPA categorizes 5,000 parts per billion or higher as hazardous waste. According to city and district officials, Newark’s elevated lead levels, unlike Flint’s, are likely to originate in fixtures and pipes in the school buildings and not from the city’s water source.

Flint lead contamination occurred after an official appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder decided to switch, as a cost-savings measure, from the Detroit River to the toxic Flint River. Officials estimate 9,000 to 10,000 Flint children ages six and younger have lead poisoning as a result.

Meanwhile, an article in The New York Times this month, revealed that 14.2 percent of children in Cleveland had elevated levels of lead. That compares with 7 percent of Flint children at its peak in 2014.

Separately, USA Today, after analyzing Environmental Protection Agency data from 2012 to 2015, concluded that 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests 470 times. The overall picture was sobering — nearly 20 percent of the nation’s water systems tested above EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion.

Prolonged exposure to lead is particularly harmful to children six and younger. It can affect brain development, lowering IQ and affecting cardiovascular, immune and hormone systems,. Elevated lead levels can also lead to attention-related behaviors and diminished academic achievement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

 Adverse health effects of blood lead levels less than 10 µg/dL [micrograms per decilitre] in children extend beyond cognitive function to include cardiovascular, immunological, and endocrine effects.


For more information about how to help Flint students and educators, go to the Michigan Education Association website.

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