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Long Awaited Lead Legislation May Soon Affect New York Schools, On Long Island More Than Most

Courtesy of Pexels

New York could soon have among the nation’s lowest levels of lead allowed in school drinking water. That means many schools on Long Island will soon have to upgrade their water fountains and sinks to comply with a new state standard that reduces students' exposure to lead.

State lawmakers approved earlier this month the reduction of lead allowed from 15 parts per billion to five parts per billion. It now awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo for a signature.

It could cost $30 million to remediate schools statewide to meet the new standard. Long Island has the most number of schools that would be impacted because of how old the school buildings are.

“There's no safe level of lead exposure,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, which lobbied for the legislation. “The Food and Drug Administration uses five parts per billion in what we provide in bottled water. So certainly there's room for us to be improving what we're allowing to have in our water that our kids are drinking.”

Jaymie Meliker, an environmental epidemiologist and professor of public health at Stony Brook University said reducing exposure to lead and other heavy metals will benefit public health in the long term.

“There's really a growing body of literature that suggests that lead could be linked with cardiovascular disease,” Meliker said. “It's not lead from a single exposure, it's cumulative exposure over a lifetime.”

He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had guidelines for how much lead is allowable in the blood — how physicians test for heavy metal toxicity — for at least 50 years. And as the government continues to curb the allowable level of lead in drinking water, student health is expected to improve over their lifetime.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends lead drinking water standards be stricter at one part per billion. The academy said student health is linked to school performance and cognitive ability.

“What we thought was OK, as we learn more, turns out, there's risks,” Meliker said.

Ask A Doctor

“No measurable blood lead level is considered safe,” said Dr. Jill Cioffi, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and medical director of ambulatory primary care pediatrics at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

Blood lead levels are measured by physicians differently than drinking water, which is a government standard — not medical.

Under the federal government, schools and childcare facilities are regulated under the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule. Revised standards that went into effect this March from the Trump administration “have been pushed back twice,” Cioffi said. The Biden administration has said “it is vital that federal policies align with the needs of our communities.”

The medically supported allowable limit is less than five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, according to the CDC. Chronically elevated blood level levels can impact cognitive function, cardiovascular, immunologic, reproductive, development and endocrine systems.

Cioffi said the children’s hospital screens for lead exposure at all check ups for children 6 months to 6 years old using a questionnaire developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children 1 and 2 years old are tested for lead exposure with a quick finger stick that takes less than five minutes to process.

She said several factors determine how much lead a child might have in their system:

  • The age of the child — younger children are more vulnerable
  • The size of the child — their bodies are unable to absorb and excrete as fast (also research shows lead is stored in organs, including bones)
  • Medical comorbidities
  • Environmental factors, including poverty and nutrition
  • Length of time of exposure
  • Amount of water consumed

Also, how the water fountain or refill station is used also comes into effect. Cioffi said water from the tap should ideally be run cold water for about two minutes before use. Stagnant water has a longer time to come in contact with lead. Boiling and hot water is more prone to leach lead out of pipes.
Traps and screens on faucets used for drinking should be regularly cleaned since they can collect lead particles over time causing increased contamination.

That’s because homes and schools built before 1986 are more likely to have pipes, fixtures or solder that contain lead, Cioffi said. And new buildings that have "lead free plumbing" may have used materials that contained up to 8% lead. But the main source of childhood lead exposure is from lead in dust and soil. Drinking water is typically not the main culprit, she said, but can contribute to a child's lead exposure over time.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.