Update on Efforts to Reduce Lead in New York State’s School Drinking Water

Articles | August 31, 2023

As classes are set to begin this week for K-12 students, the quality of school drinking water – particularly when it comes to lead – is top of mind for many parents, and for good reason.

Lead is a heavy metal and a known neurotoxin, particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of children. There is no safe level of lead exposure and even small amounts can harm a child’s growth, behavior, and ability to learn.

In 2016, New York State became the first in the nation to enact a law requiring all public schools to test for, report to the school community about, and fix issues concerning lead in drinking water at all outlets used for consumption. 

Here’s an update on the program:

New NYS Department of Health Report Released; Positive news but incomplete data

The NYS Department of Health recently released its 2021 biennial report providing an overview of the program’s status, including a summary of test results, program implementation updates and actions taken. This report covers the “Round 2” period of testing, which occurred from January 1, 2020 – June 30, 2021. 

For Round 2, approximately 96% of the drinking water yielded results below the lead action level of 15 ppb, the current standard. This is an improvement from “Round 1” (2016-2017) where 94% percent of the outlets were below the lead action level. 

What is troubling about this report, however, is the declining level of disclosure by public school districts to the Department of Health. 

  • In the 2019 biennial report covering Round 1 testing, information from nearly 99% of all schools buildings were provided to the Department of Health with results. 
  • In the 2021 biennial report covering Round 2 testing, information from only 93% buildings were reported – a 6% drop. 
    • A deeper look at the data shows that this 6% represents nearly 300 building reports that are missing from the Department of Health dataset. These missing reports are spread around 89 school districts which represents 13% of all school districts which means only 87% of all school districts have fully complied with Round 2 reporting.

                                                                                      Source data: https://health.data.ny.gov

We urge the Department of Health to immediately reach out to school districts that have not submitted all of their reports for Round 2 to ensure compliance with this program.

School drinking water in your area may be getting cleaner thanks to a new state law that took effect late last year.

New regulations advocated by NYLCV and its allies went into effect on December 22, 2022, revising and improving upon the landmark 2016 law creating the Safe School Drinking Water Act. These revisions signed into law by Governor Hochul, will get even more lead out of our school drinking water and close loopholes in the initial program as such:

  • While there is no safe level of lead, the “action level” for lead in drinking water is now 5 parts per billion (ppb), reduced from 15 ppb
    • This change makes New York State the largest state with the most protective health standard in the country, stronger that the federal Lead and Copper Rule

  • Water testing will now occur triennially (every 3 years) reduced from every five years 
    • Schools must initiate their testing between January 1, 2023, through December 31, 2025, with school districts such as New York City and Schenectady already getting started

  • School buildings that previously were declared “lead-free” are no longer exempt from testing requirements
  • Copies of lead sampling results including laboratory reports must be made available to the public and posted on the school’s website
    • An improvement in transparency 

  • Clarifies that if it’s necessary to provide water to school occupants following the temporary removal of a drinking water source, it must be provided free of charge
    • A win for equity and a commonsense approach
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