YORKTOWN, N.Y. - Lakeland and Yorktown school districts have tested lead levels in drinking water at all elementary school buildings in compliance with a newly enacted state law.
The law, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sept. 6, requires districts to test all water “outlets” by the end of October. An outlet is defined by the state as a “water fixture currently or potentially used for drinking or cooking purposes,” such as a water fountain or sink.
Lakeland and Yorktown hired professionals to carry out the lead testing in August; however, the state regulations enacted the following month were more stringent and schools were required to retest under the new parameters.
Joe Sbarra of Louis Berger Consulting, which performed testing at both Lakeland and Yorktown schools, said the state’s requirement of testing “potential” water outlets presented an issue to school districts who chose to proactively test for lead. For example, his company initially only tested water outlets currently used for drinking at the schools.
“This ‘potentially used’ thing has created quite an issue,” Sbarra said. “When we did the targeted sample for [Lakeland and Yorktown] earlier, why would you test a bathroom sink? Does a kid drink out of a bathroom sink?”
State regulations also require that “first-draw” samples are taken from the water outlets rather than a 30-second flush prior to collecting a sample, Sbarra said. The water must also sit in the pipes between eight and 18 hours prior to testing.
“Anything that sits in a pipe for a while, the results are probably not going to be favorable,” he said. “But that is what it is. We are testing sinks in bathrooms, classrooms, nurse’s offices, teacher’s lounges, etc.”
School districts are required to take action if tests report lead levels higher than “15 parts per billion.”
“That’s the magic number,” Sbarra said. “If it’s over 15 parts per billion, you’ve gotta do something.”
That “something” is not entirely spelled out under state law, Sbarra said, but generally requires school districts “fix it or take it out of service.”
Results of the testing were due for elementary schools by Sept. 30 and are due for middle and high schools by Oct. 31.
In Lakeland, 528 locations have so far been tested throughout its five elementary schools. According to the results, 97 of its 528 water outlets (18 percent) were above the 15 parts per billion threshold: 20.5 percent at Van Cortlandtville, 23 percent at Lincoln-Titus, 18.4 percent at George Washington, 7.4 percent at Thomas Jefferson and 21 percent at Ben Franklin. The law required the district report the results to the Westchester County Department of Health.
In Yorktown, 19 of 174 water outlets (10.9 percent) were above 15 parts per billion: 20.8 percent at Brookside, 7.3 percent at Crompond and 6.3 percent at Mohansic. None of the failures were drinking fountains, according to Superintendent Dr. Ralph Napolitano.
“The immediate action in each building was to turn off the affected (non-drinking) water outlets as we develop a remediation plan which can include signage or faucet and/or piping replacement,” Naplitano said.
Lakeland Superintendent Dr. George Stone said his district immediately shut off all drinking fountains that were over the recommended limits. Of the 97 failures, 30 were drinking fountains.
“Obviously, experts have set acceptable limits and we have to respect those limits and it’s our responsibility to deal with those as quickly as we can,” Stone said.
Water outlets not used for drinking, such as sinks, will remain active for cleaning and other purposes, but signs will be posted indicating they are “Not for Drinking,” Stone said.
Sbarra spoke with the Yorktown Board of Education at its Sept. 26 meeting, before the elementary school results were due. When asked by the board about the timeframe for fixing failed water outlets, Sbarra responded, “There is none.”
“There’s no timeframe?” asked trustee Michael Magnani. “We just get to put our own timeframe in place?”
School Board President Jackie Carbone responded, “Until they (the state) mandate something else that will cost us more money.”
Sbarra said the repairs usually involve replacing plumbing.
“Most of this lead is coming from the solder,” he said. “Where the joints and the pipes are put together, the old solder had lead in it. Even though it may be 50 or 60 years since that was put in, the lead is still leeching out of that.”
While the New York State guidelines require first-draw samples from water that has sat in the pipes for about a dozen hours, Stone said Lakeland custodians have always flushed the faucets before students arrive in the morning. The summer test, using less stringent guidelines than the state required, only resulted in a handful of failures, Stone said.
Several failures are significantly higher than the acceptable level, but many are only slightly above the 15 parts per billion threshold. Because of that, Stone said the district will install filters in those drinking fountains and retest them. If the issue is not resolved, plumbing would likely need to be replaced. The district has not yet put a plan in place for repairs, but Stone anticipates the remediation will cost a “significant amount of money.” He lamented that no state aid has been available for the repairs.
“Given the widespread need, it would be nice if there was some additional state aid to cover this,” he said.
Despite the closure of 30 drinking fountains, Stone said there is still plenty of drinking water available in all of the schools. For classrooms that have lost nearby fountains, Stone said the district will provide water bottles.