Water filters installed on drinking fountains and taps to protect school children in Newark, New Jersey from the toxic effects of lead were not consistently changed as suggested by the manufacturer and required by the school district's own policy.
One week ago, testing revealed that water in nearly half the schools in the 35,054-student district is contaminated with potentially dangerous levels of lead.
But concern among Newark school officials over toxic heavy metals in the water supply is nothing new.
In a 2014 memo, Executive Managing Director of Operations for Newark Public Schools, Keith Barton, cited a federal law governing the management of lead contamination and instructed school staff to "report any filter observed with a date exceeding six (6) months from the last replacement to the Duty Manager."
But photographs sent to VICE News by the Newark Teachers Union appear to show lead filters still in place despite bearing dates past expiry — some from as far back as 2012 and 2013.
"You're looking at lead water filters that were placed on school water fountains throughout the district, and were supposed to be replaced every six months," said union president John Abeigon, describing the images.
According to the union, the photographs were taken last week in ten schools, where results from the most recent round of water testing did not show levels of lead above the US Environmental Protection Agency's "action threshold" of 15 parts per billion. Students and staff in the 30 affected buildings have been instructed not to use taps or fountains and have been supplied with bottled water.
Lead, even in small doses, can cause a number of health problems, including brain damage and developmental disorders. Children are particularly vulnerable to the metals effects and the Newark Department of Health is providing free blood testing for children.
The ten schools where the photographs were taken, according to the union, are: Lafayette Street School, Hawkins Street School, Dr. William H. Horton Elementary School, Arts High School, East Side High School, Wilson Avenue School, Lafayette Street Annex, Chancellor Avenue Early Childhood Learning Center, and Ben Franklin and Lincoln Schools.
A spokesperson for American Plumber, the company whose label is displayed on some of the photographed filters, said that to be effective filters should be replaced every six months at a minimum and more frequently if they are used heavily.
Neither Newark's state-appointed superintendent, Chris Cerf, nor Barton, responded to questions about the photographs and Newark's lead abatement policies.
"Our number one priority in the coming days will continue to be to make sure that our students and staff have access to healthy drinking water," said a district spokesperson in a statement.
The statement also said that since at least 2004 the school district has been taking a number of measures to protect students and staff from lead. "In 2004 lead reduction filters were installed throughout the school district and high lead content fixtures were removed and replaced," it reads. "The head custodian under the direction of the principal of each school was charged with ensuring this protocol is followed daily."
But a member of Newark's custodial staff said that requests for new water filters to replace expired ones would sometimes go unanswered for long periods of time.
"They're supposed to change the filters every six months, but they don't," said the custodian, who asked not to be identified out of concern for reprisals from the district. Requests would be placed, the custodian said, and "they'll come back to me and they'll be like we they don't have no filters ... it could be six months to a year," they said.
The custodian said that in the school where they work — among the 30 where lead was found above the EPA threshold — plumbers replaced all the filters in the last two weeks. Asked if they were confident that the filters were up to date before that, the custodian took a long pause and said, "No. No."
Since 2010, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, donated $100 million to aid the foundering district, Newark's state-managed school system has been at the center of a national battle over how to right America's struggling urban schools. Last June, Cami Anderson, the controversial superintendent appointed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie resigned, and despite the massive donation the district still faces a $15-20 million budget gap.
A district administrator, who also asked not to be named, said that the controversy swirling around Newark has resulted in high rates of staff turnover. The administrator emphasized that in some schools the lead abatement measures have been strictly maintained and replacement water filters were promptly provided and installed. But the administrator also speculated that the revolving door of custodial staff in some schools and the cost of filters may have resulted in oversights.
"The filters are $75 a piece," said the administrator. "They're costly. I don't know if that was an issue. That would be a shame for $75."
It remains unclear how long lead has been present in the water of Newark schools and for how long the district has been conducting tests. The district confirmed that a third-party laboratory had conducted testing between 2012 and 2016, and that these results were shared with and reviewed by district staff. But the district document references much earlier testing.
A 2007 memo to district staff regarding lead abatement states: "The law mandates parents, staff, and employee notification of the 'availability' of the test results. You have received, under separate cover an 'Annual Water Quality Report,' which shall be posted prominently in every school." Similar statements are made in the 2014 memo sent by Keith Barton and in another one from 2008.
The district administrator who spoke with VICE News on the condition of anonymity said they were unsure if results had been publically posted as far back as 2007.
The Newark school district has not yet responded to requests for the results from earlier water testing, but said they intend to release the findings going back to 2012.
"We expect to have a full set of results, and more comprehensive answers about specific remedial actions available to the public this week," the district said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Newark mayor Ras Baraka — who served as principal of a Newark high school from 2007 to 2013 — said the mayor had no comment and that the "matter falls under the jurisdiction of the Newark Public Schools and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection."
Unlike in Flint, Newark's general water supply is not contaminated, the Department of Environmental Protection confirmed last week. But in Newark, lead is also believed to have leached out of old piping and solder.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund and a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, linked the two cities, as well as the breaking of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Like the other two cities, Newark has a mostly African American population and a large proportion its of citizens live below the poverty line. Redlener said that all three incidents represent the comeuppance for long standing neglect of American infrastructure — which in its most recent rating the American Society of Civil Engineers earned a D-plus.
Exposure of children to high lead levels, the doctor, said can shave off IQ points and shows how this neglect hits the disenfranchised the hardest and compounds their existing plight.
"In a sense, we've doomed children who are growing up in poverty," said the doctor.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg