As Newark grapples with a lead crisis, here’s what you should know about lead in local schools

In Newark, officials began handing out bottled water Monday after lead was found in the water at two of three tested homes, despite their use of water filters. 

So what does the ongoing water crisis mean for Newark’s schools?

To date, city officials have raised concerns only about homes with lead pipes that receive water from a treatment plant that has experienced problems. The officials have given no indication that the drinking and cooking water in Newark’s schools is affected.

Still, the ongoing water crisis has some residents seeking assurances that schools’ water remains safe — especially since the district has faced its own lead problems in the past. 

In 2016, nearly half of Newark schools were found to have elevated levels of lead, forcing some schools to use bottled water for over a year. The district responded aggressively, replacing lead pipes at affected schools and installing new water filters — a notable outlay in a district with many crumbling school buildings. Last October, board members said that city water was once again flowing at all schools.

But questions remain about how the district is continuing to monitor the water quality in its schools. In 2016, the state education department required districts to test all water outlets for lead, and to test again within six years. Newark tested all of its schools at that time, and posted the results on its website. In the past, the district has said it conducts annual tests for lead in the water — but it does not appear to have posted any test results since 2017.

On Monday, board member Tave Padilla said the district had taken “clear and authoritative action” in 2016 so that the water in affected schools was made “lead-free.” But Padilla, who is on the board committee that oversees school facilities, could not say what the current lead testing protocol is. He said he plans to ask district officials this week.

“Are we checking the schools now that there’s lead throughout the city? What precautions are we taking?” Padilla said, adding that he is confident the district will offer a satisfactory response. “They’ll give me an answer.”

A district spokesperson did not provide answers to questions about school water quality that were emailed Monday and Tuesday.

In March 2016, the annual water tests found that 30 schools had lead levels above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. In response, the district quickly shut off the schools’ water fountains and kitchen faucets, posted “Do Not Drink” signs above unfiltered sinks, and began distributing bottled water.

The district then had water samples from every school tested, replaced pipes and fixtures in places where lead was found, and outfitted water fountains with new filters that automatically stop the flow of water after the filters reach capacity. Officials also put in place new protocols to make sure that filters are replaced and pipes are flushed to help clear out any lead.

The district also provided free blood tests to check students for lead poisoning. Out of 500 students who opted to be tested at school, only one was found to have lead levels above the federal action level.

Kim Gaddy, who was on the Newark school board at that time, said the district “moved aggressively and quickly” to address the crisis.

But Gaddy, who is an organizer at Clean Water Action of New Jersey, said preventing lead contamination is not a one-time fix. Water filters must be replaced, lead pipes must be flushed in the mornings and after weekends, and the water must be tested regularly.

“If you’re not constantly monitoring, holding people accountable for procedures in place, then you’re going to end up right where you were three years ago,” she said.

Gaddy, whose most recent term on the school board ended in April, said she had requested monthly updates from district officials on its lead monitoring but did not receive them. On Monday, she repeated her call for the district to keep the public and the full school board informed of the water quality in schools.

“It’s a serious issue and it has to be addressed in a serious manner,” she said. “That’s why it’s worth having honest conversations and it’s worth having monthly reports.”

For now, the city is offering bottled water to about 14,000 households with lead service lines that previously received free filters from the city. The homes get water from the city’s Pequannock plant, which a study last year found was not properly treating the water to prevent lead from leaching in from pipes. In May, the city began a new water treatment system.

The city is also making free water testing available for Newark residents, and free blood testing is also being offered to Newark children under the age of 6. 

Lead can have adverse effects on healthy adults, and exposure to even low levels of lead can cause serious and irreversible damage to children’s developing brains and nervous systems.