Dangerous levels of lead have contaminated the drinking water of school children in Newark, New Jersey since at least 2012, school officials have announced.
Last week, the 35,054-student school district shut off fountains and shipped bottled water into nearly half its schools after annual testing found that 10 percent of water samples contained lead above the legal "action level" set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. But lead above this threshold was present in even more of the samples from between 2012 and 2015 — and equivalent actions were not taken in any of those years.
"Out of about 2,067 water quality samples collected between 2012 and 2015, approximately 12 percent reflected lead levels above the federal action level," the Newark school district said in a statement Wednesday evening. "While many schools had no readings above the threshold of 15 parts per billion, a significant number did have at least one 'point of use' that exceeded it. In virtually all cases, the affected schools detected lead in less than half of the  tested sites, with most of those well below 100ppb."
Lead, even at low levels, can cause irreversible brain damage, developmental disorders, learning disabilities, and other ailments. Young children are especially vulnerable to its deleterious effects.
'We have allowed austerity, small government, regressive tax reforms, failure to invest in our infrastructure, mainly our cities where black and brown children are the majority to be put in harm's way.'
On Tuesday, Newark officials announced that lead-poisoning tests would be administered to students from the 30 schools where last week's results showed high levels of the toxic metal. The screening will cover up to 17,000 children and is set to begin Thursday with toddlers at two early childhood education centers where lead was found.
But following the revelation that the contamination is at least 4-years-old and more pervasive than originally stated, a public health expert said it may be necessary to test many more kids.
"I'm certain that most parents will want to have their children tested," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund and a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University
However, the doctor said, even testing every person in Newark would not reveal the full effect of the contamination, as even those badly hurt by youthful exposure to lead may no longer have the toxin in their bloodstream.
"The blood lead level taken right now will not necessarily reflect anything at all about the level of exposure in the past," said Redlener "The damage may have already been done to children, who, if they had been tested earlier, may well have benefited considerably from early intervention programs."
School officials said they are working with the city to make free blood tests more widely available, although details of the plan were not released. The district will be testing water in previously untested buildings and retesting others starting on Saturday. Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf said, "We can assure the community that adequate supplies of water will be available as long as circumstances warrant."
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka — who was principal of a Newark high school from 2007 to 2013 — called on the state and federal governments to fund permanent solutions to the lead that leaches out of pipes and fixtures across the United States.
"We have a serious problem in our country and in this state in particular, 14-years ago lead was found in the Camden school system and the schools are still using bottled water to this day," said Baraka in his state of the city speech Tuesday. "We have allowed austerity, small government, regressive tax reforms, failure to invest in our infrastructure, mainly our cities where black and brown children are the majority to be put in harm's way."
Newark's state-controlled school district confirmed in a statement earlier this week that since at least 2012 district staff had received and reviewed the results of annual water testing. From 2004 to 2011, testing was conducted by a different company, and those results are not yet available.
Cerf, who was previously New Jersey's Commissioner of Education and appointed superintendent by Governor Chris Christie last July following the resignation of Superintendent Cami Anderson, distanced himself from his predecessors on Wednesday.
"Without intending to criticize any of my three predecessors, when I learned of the 2015 test results, I decided to address the situation differently," said Cerf, referring to Anderson, Clifford Janey, who was superintendent from 2008 to 2011, and Marion Bolden, whose tenure in the post began in 1999.
Newark has had lead abatement protocols, such as the daily flushing of school water systems and regular replacement of lead filters on taps and drinking fountain, since 2004. But the elevated levels of lead found from 2012 to 2015 did not prompt the type of emergency response undertaken last week.
Nor did past district administrations consistently follow their own lead abatement measures. Earlier this week, following VICE News reporting photographs taken by the Newark Teachers Union of lead filters marked with dates long past their six-month expiration, the district announced that it would be reviewing how closely past lead abatement protocols were followed.
Cerf stated Wednesday that the dates marked on the filters "do not necessarily correspond to the dates of the filter replacement," and lashed out at the union which has repeatedly called for his resignation, accusing them of politicizing the contamination and spreading misinformation.
A Newark custodian previously told VICE News that request for replacement filters would sometimes go unanswered for as long as a year.
Since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to help right the Newark's school — where standardized test scores are far below the national averages, and dropout rates far above — in 2010, the city has been at the center of a heated national debate over charter schools and education reform. The donation was solicited by Governor Christieand former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is now a US senator. In Booker's words, it was supposed to enable Newark to "break the cycle of failure and low expectations in public education."
Union president John Abeigon said that the history of lead contamination shows, that in their race to fix the schools, those running the state-administered district neglected the safety of its staff and students.
Cerf doesn't entirely disagree.
"As a parent, I too find the fact that the district has identified elevated levels of lead in water in each of these past years extremely concerning," he said.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg