Hundreds of NYC schools repeatedly tested positive for peeling lead paint, records reveal

More than 330 school buildings serving the city’s youngest students repeatedly tested positive for chipping lead paint between 2014 and 2019, a Chalkbeat analysis of inspection data revealed. 

Within these buildings, there were 96 specific classrooms, bathrooms, and other spaces young children used that had positive lead paint test results at least twice in the past five years, according to records obtained by Chalkbeat under the Freedom of Information Law, combined with records released from the city’s summer inspections. 

The findings revealed troubling questions about how lead remediation is conducted in schools, observers say. 

“If the same room repeatedly comes up, it suggests all they did was band-aid over water damage, and they didn’t really fix the problem,” said Tom Neltner, a lead paint expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, suggesting there could be a larger maintenance problem affecting the rooms. 

In all, roughly 3,800 school spaces in 613 buildings tested positive over the past five years for lead paint, records showed. 

Of those, 138 classrooms within 39 school buildings that tested positive for lead this past summer hadn’t previously been tested a single time since 2014, according to an initial analysis by the City Comptroller’s office, which had requested records from the education department and provided them to Chalkbeat.

“The records [the education department] provided have raised more questions than answers, and my office has requested additional information to understand how and how fully [the education department] was conducting inspections and remediations,” said Comptroller Scott Stringer in a statement. “It’s up to the [education department] to restore the public trust and finally demonstrate a real commitment to transparency and accountability.” 

Lead in blood can cause long-lasting developmental, learning, and behavioral problems. Young children are most at risk for ingesting the toxin through dust that lead-based paint chips can leave behind – if they’re crawling on the floor or putting fingers in their mouths. A child’s home is considered the riskiest place for coming in contact with lead. Still, school can pose as a risk since young children spend a big chunk of their day inside of a classroom.

Testing for lead paint in city schools received little scrutiny until June 2019, after a WNYC investigation found lead paint in four schools. That prompted a systemwide check of classrooms serving first grade and below, inside of buildings constructed before 1985 — where lead-based paint is more common. (The federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint in 1978.) The department publicly posted inspection results for the first time in August, and parents can now find the information online.

Before this past summer, the education department said custodians regularly checked for peeling paint in older buildings serving young children, and flagged any problem areas, which were later fixed by certified contractors. The department now requires custodians in older buildings to check for deteriorating paint three times a year in classrooms serving the city’s youngest students. If they see peeling paint, it is supposed to be flagged for further testing, known as XRF, or X-ray fluorescence testing, which looks for lead inside of paint. 

Most of the data obtained by Chalkbeat show the results of X-ray tests, which were largely pre-K and kindergarten classrooms throughout the five boroughs, and also included areas near classrooms, such as bathrooms and play areas. LYFE Centers, where students who are parents can drop off their children during the school day, were also on the list. 

The rise in X-ray inspections is visible in the data: Inspectors made an average of 45 monthly visits to school buildings from 2014 through the first half of 2019. In contrast, inspectors made 922 visits in July 2019 following the education department’s new directive. 

Any classrooms that tested positive were remediated by the start of the school year, education department officials said.  

Remediation work is done where there is peeling paint, so it is possible that different areas within one classroom were in need of remediation each year, school officials noted.  

Constant wear-and-tear on surfaces that are touched a lot, such as doors, could be one reason why there are repeating positive tests for lead. An old door could be swinging and hitting something every day, and “six months later, it could be deteriorated again,” said Jonathan Wilson, deputy director and chief financial officer at the National Center For Healthy Housing. 

That’s why an abatement approach — permanently removing lead paint – is considered the best way to deal with surfaces that have a lot of contact, such as windows, he added. 

Brooklyn’s P.S. 39 was one of the buildings that had multiple positive tests for lead — in 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Justin Krebs, who has a second-grader and twin kindergartners in the school, only recalled receiving a letter this August saying his school was lead-free, but he didn’t know there was an issue until then. 

“It’s concerning, but more because it feels like we don’t know all the information, rather than feeling like something bad is being hidden,” said Krebs, who is also a member of the school’s parent association. “I’d rather be notified and given the full context and as much information as we need to be educated and not have it kept from us.”

The records don’t explain why the rooms at P.S. 39 — or the other schools — were tested or whether the rooms were remediated in previous years. (Chalkbeat has also requested these records but have yet to receive them.)  

An education official said “school administration was notified when a room required remediation.”

Besides testing for lead when custodians see peeling paint, testing at schools could be triggered by the health department. When children’s blood tests show high lead levels — anything above 5 micrograms per deciliter — their doctors are supposed to report it to city health officials. City inspectors then try to find potential sources for the lead by testing places where the child spends a lot of time, such as their apartment and their school. 

The number of children who have high levels of lead in their blood has dropped over the past decade. More than 17,000 children under the age of 18 had high levels in 2010. From January through September of 2019, that same number was just under 4,000.

Additionally, city health code requires the education department to survey the condition of its buildings once a year and record the results on a form, but doesn’t require annual X-ray testing. No such forms dating back before this summer were provided to the comptroller’s office — despite requests — making it unclear how the department made decisions to X-ray test schools across the five boroughs and whether the department had such documentation.

In a statement, City Hall spokesperson Jane Meyer wrote, “although incomplete database records are not proof that the work did not occur, we recognized the need to improve our record keeping this summer and changed our protocols.”

In the wake of criticism over its protocols, the city hired consulting firm Ernst & Young to complete an audit of its procedures. Officials expect the audit to be done by the end of this school year. 

Use the database to see if your school ever tested positive for peeling lead-based paint since 2014. Twelve schools were left out because we were unable to match their building code to a school name.