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A Letter From a Newark, New Jersey School Official Raised Concerns About Lead Contamination — In 2014

Nearly half of the city's schools switched drinking water supplies this week after tests revealed levels of lead above allowable US Environmental Protection Agency limits.

by Jake Bleiberg
Mar 11 2016, 6:40pm

School officials were concerned with lead in the water of schools in Newark, New Jersey more than two years before the revelation this week that water in nearly half of the city's public schools contains potentially dangerous levels of the toxic heavy metal.

On Wednesday, school administrators and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a statement saying that lead above the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) "action threshold" had been detected in water samples in 30 of the district's 66 schools. Students in the affected schools have been provided with alternative sources of drinking water, but district documents indicate that contamination of school water in the state's largest city may be a longstanding issue.

In an August 30, 2014 letter to senior staff, the district's managing director of operations advised school staff to take several measures "pursuant to the Federal Lead Contamination Control Act" to "further ensure that lead levels are at acceptable levels."

The letter, sent by Keith Barton under the former district superintendent Cami Anderson, tells principals to instruct students and staff to allow water fountains and faucets to run for 30 seconds before drinking. It further instructs custodial staff to "run and flush each individual water fountain for two (2) minutes daily prior to the opening of school" and tells school cafeteria workers to "run and flush each cafeteria 'cold' water faucet for two (2) minutes daily prior to food prep usage."

The EPA advises that exposure to lead can have grave health effects, including brain damage, and that children are especially vulnerable.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said that the measures specified in the letter, and the invocation of the Lead Contamination Control Act suggest a concerning level of lead was present in school water in 2014.

"This shows the people running the system knowing there's a problem and not dealing with it — just like in Flint," said Tittel, in reference to government official downplaying of lead contamination in the Michigan city's water. "That's a smoking gun, or at least a dirty glass of water."

Related: The Water in Nearly Half of Newark, New Jersey's Public Schools Is Contaminated With Lead

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Newark's state-appointed superintendent Chris Cerf said that the district accelerated annual water testing after staff at an elementary school noticed discoloration in the school's water supply last week. The results of those tests found at least one water sample from 30 schools to have lead levels above 15 parts per billion — the threshold at which the EPA requires officials to inform citizens and take action to protect public health. Some schools had as many as four samples above this limit with several samples showing lead well over 100 parts per billion.

The 2014 letter states, "[T]he law mandates parents, staff, and employee notification of the 'availability' of the test results annually."

In response to a request to release water test results from previous years, a Newark Public Schools spokesperson instead emailed VICE News a press release detailing the steps the district is taking to address the contamination.

"Ensuring the health and well-being of our students in the immediate days and weeks has been, and will continue to be the primary driver in our decision to bring drinking water into 30 schools," the statement reads. "This will continue to be our number one priority in the days ahead."

The district did not respond to questions regarding the 2014 letter.

The head of the Newark Teachers Union, John Abeigon, also drew parallels to the situation in Flint, pointing to the fact that Newark's schools have long been cash strapped and are managed by a state, rather than locally appointed, superintendent. Abeigon worried that water filters may not have been routinely changed and that the measures specified in the letter are insufficient to protect students from lead.

"Younger children are not going to remember that they were told in 2014 to let the water faucet run before drinking, that's an unreasonable expectation to have," said Abeigon. "The state operation of Newark public school district has turned into a complete fiasco."

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Department of Environmental Protection and the school district said parents shouldn't be concerned about the water students are drinking.

"Drinking water alone is not typically associated with elevated blood lead levels. It is the buildup of lead from all sources over time that determines whether harmful health effects will occur," the statement reads.

The Newark Health Department is offering free blood testing for children.

Related: Lead Contamination Poses Hazards Far Beyond Flint

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg