‘The sky isn’t falling’: Chancellor Carranza addresses revelations of peeling lead paint in nearly 1,000 NYC classrooms

In his first public comments since New York City’s education department revealed more than 900 classrooms tested positive for peeling lead paint, Chancellor Richard Carranza downplayed the risks.

“The earth isn’t falling, the sky isn’t falling, our children are not in grave danger,” Carranza told members of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, a group of parent leaders, Thursday morning.

The chancellor’s comments come a little more than a week after the education department released findings for the first time ever about lead paint contamination in city schools. After testing for lead in schools built before 1985 that serve students in pre-K or kindergarten, the department identified nearly 1,000 classrooms with peeling lead paint that could pose risks for students, though officials said any problems would be fixed by the start of school in September.

Carranza suggested that the department’s findings might overstate the possible risks to students. The tests were conducted over the summer when school staffers “are moving furniture — things get bumped up against walls,” he said. “So we think there’s a higher incidence of cracked paint.”

And he criticized the use of dust wipes to identify dangerous lead — even as the department uses the wipes to confirm that lead remediation is effective. The department’s decision to disclose data on peeling lead paint and ramp up classroom inspections followed a WNYC investigation that used the wipes to detect hazardous levels of lead in four elementary schools.

“Nobody does dust wipes,” Carranza said. “Go out on the streets and do a dust wipe and figure out what you’re going to find. Right? So that’s not fair.” 

But Carranza also acknowledged that the education department’s own testing protocol explicitly calls for the use of dust wipes, after peeling lead paint is sealed and painted over, to determine whether there is any residual contamination.

After the meeting, education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said the city would continue that practice. “In accordance with the Health Department’s standards, EPA certified contractors conduct dust wipes after remediation work is done, and that will continue,” she said. “The Chancellor’s full remarks made clear that we use dust wipes after remediation, and that the DOE believes identifying peeling paint and using [x-ray] testing to identify lead in paint is a stronger protocol than using dust wipes.”

[Related: Here’s what NYC parents can do if they’re concerned about lead exposure in classrooms]

City officials have signaled that they are considering more aggressive testing protocols. Currently, classrooms are only tested for lead after paint starts to deteriorate, potentially exposing children before it is remediated. The education department has said it is considering proactively testing classrooms with x-ray technology to find lead before it peels, but has not made a final decision.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to an “external review” of the city’s own testing protocols. City Hall and education department officials have declined to provide details, including when that review will take place, who will conduct it, and whether any findings will be released publicly.

Parents have expressed frustration that the city did not immediately inform them of lead contamination in their children’s schools, including some parents whose children attend summer programs where deteriorating lead paint was found.

Saying that “there’s a lot of innuendo that’s out there,” Carranza emphasized to the parent council that the city had given principals letters to send families in affected classrooms. “We have gone above and beyond, we will continue to go above and beyond to make sure our children are safe,” he said.