Tompkins County first discovered there was lead in schools' drinking water in August 2015. Almost no school district in the county was spared a high lead reading, though the issue is most prevalent in schools in the Ithaca City School District. The county is not alone in having lead issues. More than 100 schools across New York have tested positive for lead, which prompted legislation passed in June that requires consistent testing.
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Parents in Caroline and Enfield, in the Ithaca City School District, were first notified that there were elevated lead levels in the water Feb. 2. The results were initially found to be high in August 2015, but school officials and the Tompkins County Health Department did not notify parents until after more results came back in January. They attributed the first high results to an “anomaly” in testing since the water had not been flushed before testing and the water had been sitting in the pipes for about two months over the summer.
Caroline and Enfield schools were first tested because they are required to test their water every three years because it is supplied by wells, which are technically their own water system. Schools that receive water from municipal systems are not required to test drinking water.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, even low levels of lead have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing and impaired formation and function of blood cells. The CDC recommends that public health actions be initiated when the level of lead in a child's blood is five micrograms per deciliter or more.
Children 6 years old and younger are most at risk. Children are most commonly exposed to lead through lead paint and dust.
The Tompkins County Health Department will notify parents at three stages if their child has elevated blood levels, Frank Kruppa, public health director at the Tompkins County Health Department explained. At 10 micrograms per deciliter, the health department does a "full-scale" investigation which includes working with the family, with community health nurses and environmental health sanitarians to try to identify the source and eliminate any future exposures. If a child has 8 micrograms per deciliter, a nurse will contact the family with information with a phone call to help the family understand the issue, and ask if the family is interested in a further investigation. At 5 micrograms per deciliter, the health department will send information by mail to the family.
For more information from the health department about the effects of lead poisoning, visit the health department's lead poisoning prevention webpage.
Yes, though none of have been attributed to drinking water. Since July 1, 2015, there have been four cases reported; two were traced to lead paint, one is still under investigation but lead paint is suspected and one reported Aug. 30 is under investigation, according to Kruppa.
If anyone has concerns about elevated blood levels in their child, the health department recommends that parents contact their pediatrician or health care provider.
The CDC recommends that parents talk with their child's doctor about a simple blood lead test, and if pregnant or nursing, talking with a doctor about exposure to sources of lead. People who are concerned should contact the health department about testing paint and dust in their homes, especially if their home was built before 1978. The CDC also recommends to renovate safely and use contractors certified by the EPA. Lastly, the CDC advises to remove recalled toys and jewelry from children and discard as appropriate.
Lead typically gets into water through old pipes or fixtures. Buildings constructed before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Before lead solder and fixtures were banned in June 1986, solders used to join water pipes typically contained about 50 percent lead.
While the fixtures are suspected, Kruppa said "we don't know in every instance. That's why the process is extremely important." He said the county is following the "3 T's for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools" guidance from the EPA.
In the Ithaca City School District, most water sources have been shut off and certified drinking water is being provided. The district has contracted LaBella Associates to identify and help address the issue. LaBella Associates gave an update regarding lead to the board of education in July.
The Ithaca City School District has been working with the Tompkins County Health Department and the EPA to get plumbing profiles and a plan of action together, David Brown, chief administration officer said. Working with those agencies plus LaBella Associates, Brown said the district is better prepared to understand testing results.
ICSD and the health department are also testing out a phosphate-based corrosion inhibitor in Caroline and Enfield. The corrosion inhibitor, which is added to the water, "creates a slight film on the inside of the pipe that prevents the water from leeching the lead out," Greg Senecal of LaBella Associates explained in a July board of education meeting.
Other districts including Trumansburg, Groton, Lansing, Newfield and Dryden have addressed problem fixtures and plan to continue to re-test for lead.
The Tompkins County Health Department has a comprehensive webpage dedicated to school drinking water safety with guidance documents and answers to frequently asked questions.
The Ithaca City School District has a water testing information page where updates are posted. There are also links to all past water tests. Other districts often post updates on their schools' websites as well.
The Ithaca Journal has compiled all documents released, including test results, community letters and press releases from the school districts regarding lead in water issues. They are available for viewing here. The list will be updated as more information is released.
Read more about lead from the Centers for Disease Control or from the Environmental Protection Agency.