Mayor de Blasio promised to eliminate lead exposure by 2029. Are NYC schools doing everything they can to make that happen?

In the moments after officials revealed that nearly 1,000 New York City classrooms have peeling lead paint last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio took to a presidential debate stage and touted his administration’s commitment to “literally ending the notion of lead poisoning.”

But the education department’s protocol for testing and fixing deteriorating lead paint in schools stops far short of the mayor’s “vision zero” pledge of eliminating lead exposure, according to five experts informed of the city’s protocol.

The city has strengthened its process for identifying deteriorating lead paint on the heels of a recent WNYC investigation. And observers said the city also appears to be following the law around addressing lead paint in schools. 

But even when procedures are followed correctly, students may be in classrooms for weeks or months before a custodian is required to conduct a visual inspection. And the city does not test proactively for lead dust, the most common source of lead exposure related to paint, which can be present even without any visible signs of deterioration.

“Simply looking at whether or not the walls are not in reasonable condition or are intact is simply not enough,” said Kim Dietrich, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati who has advised the Centers for Disease Control. “That won’t identify all of the hazards that may be present in a school.”

The consequences of lead paint exposure, even for brief periods, can negatively impact brain development and impede a student’s capacity to learn, even leading to aggressiveness or inattentiveness. Research has found that simple interventions can help treat the effects and even improve school performance.

This summer, the city tested thousands of classrooms and found peeling lead paint in over 900 of them, or roughly 38% of school buildings tested. It is remediating lead paint in each of those classrooms before classes begin in September, according to city officials, and the city has also launched a new inspection procedure to identify hazards in the future.

The procedure basically works like this: Custodians are supposed to check every city classroom built before 1985 that contains children under 6. When custodians find evidence of peeling paint, they are supposed to report it. Then, the city hires a technician who uses X-ray technology to determine if there is lead in the paint. If they find lead, the city hires a trained contractor to seal it and paint it over. 

“We have always had a proactive approach in which our custodians regularly visually inspect all classrooms, and we perform [X-ray] testing and remediation,” said Will Mantell, spokesman for the education department. “Our schools experience wear and tear and are regularly re-painted, particularly over the summer. We are confident in our protocols and we’re also commissioning an external review to ensure they are as strong as possible.” 

What that review might cover and when it will take place are so far not clear. The city has declined to answer questions about the review, including who will conduct it.

But experts in lead paint remediation identified three main weaknesses in the protocol the city says it follows

First, the city waits for paint to start peeling before doing anything about it. Even though the city recently instructed custodians to inspect classrooms three times a year, that could still leave peeling paint unreported for stretches of up to a few months.

Second, the city does not proactively test for lead dust, the most common form of exposure through paint, which can be invisible to the naked eye and can result from degradation of paint even without signs of peeling. Areas that are exposed to the elements (think windowsills) or high-activity areas such as doorframes can give off poisonous levels of dust that cannot be detected by a quick visual inspection.

Finally, the city does not use X-ray technology to test for lead paint until it starts peeling. Multiple experts said that if officials conducted a proactive sweep, they could construct a database of every classroom serving children under 6 years old that contains lead. That way, when custodians find crumbling paint, they could immediately hire a contractor to fix the issue, saving time and costs associated with hiring an inspector to test for lead every time the paint starts peeling.

The city’s approach is “not uncommon, but it’s shortsighted and it’s wasting money and time,” said Tom Neltner, a lead paint expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, who has conducted trainings for inspectors and contractors tasked with cleaning up lead paint. 

On the other hand, using custodians to initially identify deteriorating paint is a “creative” technique for school systems that might be strapped for cash and resources, Dietrich said. Jonathan Wilson, deputy director and chief financial officer at the National Center for Healthy Housing, also said custodians offered a decent first line of defense.

The city does appear to be following relevant laws and regulations, Neltner said.

There is no federal requirement to proactively test school buildings for lead, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also certifies inspectors and contractors tasked with cleaning up lead paint. And while the city’s health department requires annual surveys of  buildings where children under 6 are present, it doesn’t lay out specific protocols for how to inspect.

But Neltner said the current rules set a low bar and that the city could be doing more to match the mayor’s rhetoric of zero lead paint exposure. 

“There’s no requirement to be vigilant,” Neltner said. “But I heard [de Blasio] say in a debate that he wants to eliminate lead exposure in New York City. That really is asking people like NYCHA [the city’s public housing authority] or the education department to be vigilant.”

Short of costly and impractical solutions such as completely tearing down buildings and starting from scratch, it’s impossible to completely eliminate the possibility of lead exposure, experts said. Still, they offered some steps the education department could take to further reduce risks to students.

One potential change would be to proactively test classrooms for lead dust, which the city currently considers dangerous at a level of 10 micrograms per square foot — smaller than a single sugar packet’s worth of dust spread over an entire football field. Experts said testing all rooms for lead dust could alert officials to problem areas. Right now, the education department only tests classrooms, according to the protocol posted on the department’s website.

“If you’re worried [and] believe in the precautionary principle, it’s certainly then something school systems should be talking about,” said Wilson, who also coordinated a federal grant program on containing lead hazards.

Chancellor Richard Carranza, who downplayed the risks of lead paint exposure to parents last week, suggested that the use of dust wipes to proactively test classrooms could be misleading. A department spokesman said the current protocol is “stronger” than proactively testing for lead dust. The city currently tests for dust only as a final check after peeling lead paint is sealed and painted to make sure classrooms are safe for students to return.

Dietrich, the expert from the University of Cincinnati, said the chancellor’s statement was “puzzling,” since inhaling or ingesting dust is the most common way children are exposed. 

Another tweak experts suggested: proactive X-ray testing to create a database of which rooms have lead paint. With a roadmap of potential danger zones, the city would not have to wait for additional testing to have contractors begin sealing off lead paint when chipping is discovered. City officials said they are considering this change but have not yet made a final decision.

In general there’s no nationwide efforts on eliminating lead dust in American schools, Wilson said. 

There’s also no single correct protocol for identifying lead paint in schools, making it difficult to definitively say how New York City’s approach stacks up, experts said. 

It’s even tough to find detailed reports on school building conditions in most states, though New York does a better job than some, said Claire Barnett, executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, an organization that advocates for environmentally safe schools. 

“In some ways,” Barnett said, “the story is, why don’t we know more about how lead is being managed in schools, period?”