Calls on State to Protect Schools from Lead in their Drinking Water

Urgent Need to Safeguard Our Children From Lead Poisoning

HO-HO-KUS, N.J. -- Today, Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) championed the call to safeguard New Jersey children from lead water in public schools. At the Ho-Ho-Kus Elementary School, Gottheimer announced the next step in his Clean Water for Kids Plan  — including his letter today to Governor Phil Murphy, asking him to join with Gottheimer in ensuring New Jersey schools are free of lead in our children’s drinking water. Our parents should worry about their child’s education, not poisoning when their kids go to school each day. Gottheimer specifically asked for enhanced reporting about the status of testing and the results for every school, organized in a transparent, easy to read, easy to digest website.

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“In New Jersey, we are blessed with the best schools in the country. Yet, here in the Fifth District, as we have seen in school after school, we still have water fountains, sinks and pipes that are generations old, and that have lead tainted water running through them. That’s unacceptable,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “Most of our schools, like the one here in Ho-Ho-Kus, have taken the necessary steps to upgrade their infrastructure, deal with this challenge, and put minds at ease. But not every school has been able to take the steps Ho-Ho-Kus has. I don’t want any parent, here in Bergen County, the Fifth District, our state, or across the country, to have to worry if the water their child drinks contains lead. As parents, we have a right to know what’s in our kids water. We have a right to know that our children will be safe at their schools.”

Gottheimer’s letter to Governor Murphy can be found HERE.

Video of today’s event can be found HERE.

Congressman Gottheimer’s full remarks as prepared for delivery can be found below:

Today, we’ve come together to discuss the urgent need for protections to safeguard our children’s drinking water from lead and other toxins and the steps the state and federal government can take immediately to keep our children safe in our schools.

Like most parents, when I first read the news out of Flint, Michigan back in 2014, I was heartbroken. Images of brown water pouring out of faucets with public officials turning a blind eye. I was not only devastated by the impact the lead found in Flint’s water would have on countless children, but I simply couldn’t understand how this could happen in our country. How can we be inching closer to a world of driverless cars, while we are seemingly unable or unwilling to ensure our children have access to the most basic of necessity-- clean drinking water?

I think it’s fair to say that all of us are paying close attention these days to the drinking water in our homes and in our schools.

Fortunately, the water challenges facing us here in New Jersey are not at the crisis level of in Flint. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t alarming issues we have to deal with – and address here in our communities without delay. In New Jersey, we are blessed with the best schools in the country. Yet, here in my district,  as we have seen in school after school, we still have water fountains, sinks and pipes are generations old, and that have lead tainted water running through them.

Now, why have we had issues here?  Like anything, infrastructure ages, whether that’s our roads, our bridges, our tunnels -- or our water supplies. And why we can’t afford to punt on any of these infrastructure issue any further -- for both our health and safety -- and our economic future.

Parts of the Ho-Ho-Kus School were built in the 1930s. Ridgewood High School opened the main building it uses today in 1919, nearly a hundred years ago. When infrastructure predates the phase out of lead pipes in the 1920s or lead solder in the 1980s, there could be lead in the drinking water, whether that’s in the water fountains, the halls, or the sinks in the lunch rooms.

Now, most of our towns and the local water companies, as required by state and federal environmental authorities, strictly monitor the lead in our drinking water and have taken the appropriate steps, including here in beautiful town of Ho-Ho-Kus. Among other treatments, they have ways to coat old pipes to prevent lead from leaching into the water. But, even if that works, it doesn’t stop the lead, once the water supply enters the school house itself and travels through those ancient pipes.

Therein lies the problem. In 2017, NJ Future reported that only 95 school districts out of nearly 600 in New Jersey had forwarded information describing positive lead test results to the Department of Education, as required by the Board of Education. These reports show that among those 95 districts, more than 300 schools had tested positive for lead. In these 95 districts, at least 14,598 water outlets were tested, and of those outlets tested, 8.1 percent exceeded the threshold for lead in drinking water.

Last year, the Atlantic City Press found that thirteen of their twenty-six local districts that tested their water discovered elevated levels of lead, and fifty percent of their schools had unacceptable levels of lead. We don’t have these statistics yet for Bergen County, but I don’t like the trend line, we all read the headline in the Record about some of the schools, including: “'Wakeup call' as lead found in water in most Bergen County districts.” and “High Lead Levels Close Saddle River School Water Fountains.” Last year, the Star-Ledger found elevated lead levels in Newark Schools’ drinking water.

Last April, another story in the Record read, “Lead found in water at both Wanaque schools.” And then in May, there was this headline: “Elevated lead found in water in six of seven Bergenfield public schools.”

Since 2012, nearly 2,000 water systems across the U.S. have found elevated lead levels in tap water samples, a significant public health concern. According to an Asbury Park Press investigation, four out of five public water systems in New Jersey – from 2013 through 2015 – reported some levels of lead in the drinking water delivered to homes, businesses, and schools. In fact, since 2000, according to Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, more than 225,000 children in our state were reported to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

That’s unacceptable. When children are exposed to lead, their development could be delayed and they can face learning disabilities. In the worst cases, children could develop permanent damage to their kidneys and nervous systems. They could experience seizures, hearing loss, and vomiting. And the greatest risk is to brain development, with subtle and irreversible damage.

It's no wonder so many moms and dads are worried. Parents want information. They don’t know if the water in their kids’ school is lead-free. They don’t know what’s in the fountains and sinks. And, more than anything, they want to know what we can – and should – be doing about it.

Now, let me be clear: Most of our schools, like the one here in Ho-Ho-Kus or next door in Ridgewood, have taken the necessary steps to upgrade their infrastructure, deal with this challenge, and put minds at ease.

Last year, in May 2016, months before the New Jersey State Board of Education issued its mandate requiring testing for lead in drinking water in public schools, the Ho-Ho-Kus Public School commissioned the testing of its drinking water. After finding traces of lead in the water supplied by one water fountain that was out of use, the school removed the fountain.

This year, in June 2017, the school again commissioned the testing of its drinking water and found no problems. Every water source in this school is lead free – and I commend the town and parents for doing it by the book, for the sake of our children.

But here’s the problem. Not every school has been able to take the steps Ho-Ho-Kus has.

I don’t want any parent, here in Bergen County, the Fifth District, our state, or across the country, to have to worry if the water their child drinks contains lead. As parents, we have a right to know what’s in our kids water. We have a right to know that our children will be safe at their schools.

We deserve information and then we need the resources to do something about it, and that’s why I’m announcing the next step in my Clean Water For Kids Plan.

Today, as part of our plan I’m sending a letter to Governor Phil Murphy, urging him to join me in ensuring New Jersey schools are free of lead in our children’s drinking water -- so that our parents can worry about education, not poisoning when their kids go to school each day.

In July of 2016, under Governor Christie, I was encouraged to see the New Jersey State Board of Education adopt regulations requiring that all New Jersey school districts conduct testing for lead in their drinking water supply, report their progress in conducting the test to the state, and make the results readily available to the public. That was a good step. But here’s the problem that I’m asking our new Governor to address: some schools have complied, others haven’t.

Under the Christie administration, the report they promised of the schools that complied and the results of each school’s water testing was just not provided to the public. It never happened. So it’s a new day and I’m asking the new governor to put up the information all in one place -- a centralized, easy to read, easy to digest website. We all want to know the last time our children’s schools were tested, and we want to know how they scored. Lead or no lead. Safe or unsafe. As a parent, this lack of information is beyond frustrating. So, I’ve asked the new Governor to please change that.

Whether the results are positive or negative, schools need to send in their results. Right now, there’s a complete lack of data and tracking year to year, including types of water outlets, fountains, sinks, bathrooms, and frequency of use. We’re in the 21st Century. We all know we can use big data to find trends. But the first step is collection and the second is transparency. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t know about it.

Today, I am urging the new administration to break with the last and compile and publicly release this information and to do so without delay.

Every time there is a lead story, every time there is an ambiguous article about another school having problems, our phones ring. The town blogs clog up. And parents want to know the deal. I know that, as a parent, I want to know.

We deserve to know the facts. And, of course, once we know the results, parents will either be comforted or they will be empowered to take action and secure clean water for their kids.

I am also urging the Governor to strengthen these protections against exposure to lead to include annual reporting and additional data collection, so that the state can develop a comprehensive plan to tackle the problem of high lead levels in school drinking water.

In my letter, I asked the Governor that his “administration break with the last and release the list of schools in the Fifth Congressional District – and across the state – that have yet to test their water and release their findings.”

Yesterday, I was pleased to see that, as part of his administration’s infrastructure proposal, options for water infrastructure. But I’m concerned that it falls far short of actually helping schools directly with the necessary resources to get lead out of our drinking water. We must do better.

That’s why, last year, I introduced “The Lead-Free Schools Act” – a bipartisan bill along with Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick to give peace of mind to parents rightfully concerned about the lead water in our schools – for testing, information, and remediation. The bill will also claw back some of the federal tax dollars that we’re already sending to Washington back to New Jersey to help us pay for this effort.

The bipartisan Lead-Free Schools Act will achieve three key things:

First, my bill will require testing in schools for lead in the drinking water. My legislation increases the resources available to our schools to help test drinking water, which currently cost about $50 dollars per test to check each of a school’s dozens of water fountains and sinks. That’s thousands of dollars per school that many schools in Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, and Warren counties simply can’t afford.

Second, my bill requires that school districts, via the state, report annually on a user-friendly website the status and outcome of lead water testing, similar to what I’m asking the Governor to require now. This transparency will have a huge impact in empowering parents.

Third, my bill creates a targeted pilot program – using existing resources – to improve drinking water infrastructure in schools with lead in their water. These resources will help more schools jump-start their programs to replace fountains, faucets, drinking fountain nozzles, and fountain infrastructure – and prevent lead from seeping into a school’s water supply.

With water fountains costing up to $1,500 before installation expenses, we know some schools simply can’t afford to replace them and these small, but targeted resources will give tens of thousands of schools, including many in my District, a head start. And, frankly, here in the Fifth District, where we pay some of the highest taxes in the country, yet have historically received the fewest dollars back, it’s time we got a better return on investment. Who better to claw these dollars back then our children?

When it comes to infrastructure, as I’ve said many times before, there is no better investment. Politicians on both sides have punted for decades on putting money into projects that improve our infrastructure, which is why we’re now facing problems like exposure to lead. We simply can’t afford to be short-sighted when it comes to securing the health of our children.

Like so many local issues, this just isn’t partisan. It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a Fifth District issue. It’s an American issue. It’s a mom and dad issue. It’s a Jersey issue.

We live in the greatest country in the world. This is a problem we can solve working together and help all of our parents know that their kids are safe.

Thank you, God bless you, and now let’s get this done.