Lead has been detected in the drinking water of thirty schools in New Jersey's largest city, state and city officials announced Wednesday.
Throughout Newark, school water fountains have been shut off and notices not to drink tap water posted after annual testing by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found elevated levels of the toxic metal in 30 of the city's 66 public schools. The affected schools will remain in session and have been supplied water coolers and bottled water, according to a joint statement from the DEP and Newark Public Schools.
At least one water sample tested from all of the impacted schools returned lead levels above the US Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" of 15 parts per billion — the threshold at which authorities must inform citizens and take action to address the problem and protect public health.
Several schools returned as many as four samples where lead was detected above the "action level," some far above it. For instance, three samples taken at Branch Brook Elementary School revealed levels of 133, 168, and 194 parts per billion, and Louise Spencer elementary school had four samples with levels of 20, 22, 71 and 134 parts per billion.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday afternoon Newark Mayor Ras Baraka rejected comparisons between the widespread lead contamination of water in Flint, Michigan and the situation in Newark. Like Flint, Newark is a majority African American city and roughly one-third of its citizens live below the poverty line.
"I understand in the Flint environment that any sign of elevation is going to make everyone go haywire," said Baraka. "But here, the water system in Newark is still safe, it's still drinkable. There have been some high detectable levels of lead in about 30 of the schools."
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On Monday, the DEP informed the school system of the results from annual testing conducted in compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. A DEP spokesperson was unable to say when the testing had been performed, but the agency confirmed in a statement that lead was not detected within Newark Water Department's source water.
Exposure to lead, even at low levels, can dire health effects, including brain damage. The EPA warns that children are particularly sensitive to the heavy metal. The DEP and Newark school system have stated that action was quickly taken and that parents that they should "have no concerns about students' water and food consumption at the school."
"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 specific cause of the contamination remains unknown, but the DEP said lead most frequently leaches into water from pipes or fixtures, as is the case in Flint. The DEP is conducting ongoing tests to determine the source of the lead. Parents can obtain blood tests for their children at the Newark Health Department of Health free of charge.
Earlier this year, Isles, Inc., a New Jersey community advocacy group, found that 11 New Jersey communities had a higher proportion of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead in their blood lead than in Flint. Newark was among those communities and Isles' director of environmental health Elyse Pivnick said that today's news in indicative of a problem that goes well beyond both Newark and Flint.
"Children in our cities are being exposed to this lead year, after year, after year," said Pivnick. "This is a problem that decision makers have become complacent about."
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