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New York Mandates All Schools Test Water For Lead But Experts Say The Effort May Be Misplaced

Karen Shakerdge
A water sample taken by Suzanne Wheatcraft during a demonstration at Nathaniel Rochester Community School.


It was a busy summer for environmental safety workers at the school district in Rochester, New York, where employees sampled over 2,000 school water fixtures and replaced nearly 20 percent of them, after finding problematic levels of lead.



“Across New York a lot of school districts are doing this. We’re doing it voluntarily, proactively, and have been since Flint,” says Suzanne Wheatcraft, the environmental safety coordinator for the district .

This year, in the wake of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis school districts around the country have been testing their tap water for lead contamination and finding concerning levels of the toxin in some cases.

And now a new law in New York state will require all schools to conduct periodic water testing in schools.

Several other states have introduced bills that, like New York, would require schools to test water as well.

But, some experts are asking if this frenzy of school water testing is the best way to protect our kids.

“All this focus on water is frustrating because I know that all of these problems are going to remain once the water pipes get fixed in areas where you already have this contamination,” says Deborah Cory-Slechta, professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

For the most part, Cory-Slechta says kids are much more likely to encounter dangerous lead levels in soil, dust and paint—not as much in water unless it’s an extreme case.

“My only hope is that maybe the water situation will awaken people again to the main problem, which the lead from paint and gasoline that's now contaminated the environment and say what are we going to do about this?” Cory-Slechta asks.

She says we’d be better off putting our efforts and resources requiring all children get screened for lead exposure or fixing buildings built before the 1980s.  

Experts agree that it’s best to avoid any exposure to lead, including in water. The water contamination crisis in Flint raised awareness about the importance of keeping a close watch on water across the country.  But the situation in Flint was very different. Flint’s water source, the Flint River, was not treated properly, causing corrosion in pipes and high levels of contamination throughout the city water supply. In Rochester, for example, the concern is about lead contamination in water from individual fixtures. It’s about pipes, faucets, and sinks.

Even before the law passed, New York schools were sending and resending so many water samples that labs got backed up. Ronald Bayer, co-owner of Envirotest, a lab in Newburgh, NY, that has processed samples for Rochester and other districts in New York, says in 2015, his lab tested roughly 600 to 700 samples. This year, Envirotest has processed ten times that many, Bayer says.

“I’m not surprised that there are positive lead results in these samples just because of the generally old infrastructure,” says Bayer.

The New York water testing law requires elementary schools to test water by the end of the month. Schools with older children have until the end of October.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media. KarenShakerdge is a health reporter for WXXI in Rochester, NY. She can be reached at Follow @karenshakerdge.

Karen Shakerdge is a health reporter/producer for WXXI and Side Effects Public Media. From a young anthropology student to a documentary film producer to an oral historian and now radio reporter, Karen has been asking people questions about their lives in one way or another for almost 10 years.