All 1,860 NYC classrooms posing lead risk get the all-clear, as new school year begins

Ahead of the first day of school, the city has fixed up about 1,800 classrooms that posed a risk for lead exposure to young children, the education department announced Tuesday. 

The classrooms, located in buildings constructed before 1985, tested positive for lead this summer after thousands of rooms were found to have peeling paint, which puts those exposed to it — especially young children — at risk for ingesting the toxin. Independent contractors sealed deteriorating walls and painted over them. Final dust wipes were taken to test for any remaining lead before the rooms were cleared for use, according to the department, which had promised to complete the remediation before school started.

Lead exposure, most commonly ingested through dust from chipping paint, is linked to learning disabilities, developmental delays, and behavioral problems. Young children — especially those under the age of 3 — are at greatest risk, since they’re more likely to be on the ground and put dust-laden fingers or paint chips in their mouths. 

In June, a WNYC reporter found hazardous levels of lead in four schools, raising concerns in a story about the department’s testing protocol. That same week, the department did a sweep of tests and for the first time released their data, which will now be kept in a database online. (You can easily search for your school here.) The department continued testing rooms throughout the summer, including for the first time first-grade classrooms, and it announced that it will require checks three times a year. 

Previously, the city tested only early childhood and kindergarten classrooms, LYFE Centers for children of students, and District 75 special education classrooms with young students. Custodians were not required to formally log inspection results. 

For months the department has asserted that its custodians routinely checked for chipping paint in classrooms in older buildings, where students younger than 6 will spend time. Chalkbeat is awaiting an open records request seeking details about inspections over the past five years. 

The department announced last week that it would also begin testing common areas for lead. Environmental health experts had raised concerns about excluding these areas from testing, as did dozens of council members in a letter to the education department. In his defense of how the city currently looks for lead in classrooms, Mayor Bill de Blasio said common spaces don’t pose a major risk because students spend most of their days in classrooms, and “you don’t get lead chips in your mouth walking through a hallway.”

But eating paint chips isn’t how most children contract lead, experts have said — it’s through ingesting lead dust. That can happen in any space students spend time in, though the risk is greater the more time that is spent in a lead-exposed space. People can also track lead dust between common spaces.

Officials said Tuesday they will inspect and test cafeterias and libraries that serve students younger than 6 in older buildings and will complete that work by next school year. School hallways aren’t part of the testing protocol just yet, but education department officials said they are “working on a plan to address additional common spaces.” 

Still, experts have said there are more ways to make testing more robust, including X-ray scanning all classrooms — even before paint starts to chip — so the city knows where the lead exists. The city has hired Ernst & Young to review its testing protocol and expects the company’s audit to be completed by the end of the year.