September 16, 2016

Schools' water to be tested under new state law

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

New York has a new law requiring schools to test their drinking water for lead contamination. The law, recently signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, includes emergency regulations requiring districts to perform testing by Oct. 31. Pre-K-through-5 school buildings are being required to test by the end of this month.

Results must be reported to parents, the state Department of Health and local government officials. Reports to the DOH will be through a designated statewide electronic reporting system.

School water fountains, which are as ubiquitous as hall lockers, will now be under scrutiny until proven safe. The tight deadlines are set to demand action.

The announcement of the new law comes just as Voorheesville, a Capital Region school district, was found to have high levels of lead in its water.

Prior to the enactment of this new law, there were no state or federal statutes mandating this testing to ensure the safety of the water available to school students, teachers, health care professionals and School-Related Professionals.

"NYSUT lobbied strongly for this legislation, which requires public schools and BOCES in New York State to test for lead contamination at the tap and requires that parents and school staff are informed of the results," said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT executive vice president in charge of the union's legislative efforts. "The landmark legislation also provides some state funding for testing and remediation for any contamination found, and includes a common-sense provision to ensure that safe drinking water is provided to the school until any contamination is corrected."

According to the law: "If lead levels are detected above 15 parts per billion at any potable water outlet, the school must discontinue use of that outlet, implement a lead remediation plan to mitigate the lead level and provide building occupants with an adequate alternate supply of water for cooking and drinking."

Any testing that shows results more than the acceptable levels must be reported within one business day to the local health department. Schools must post on their website as soon as possible – and no more than six weeks after receiving lab results.

During the past year, lead contamination has been detected in the Flint, MI, water supply and in Newark, NJ. In addition to Voorheesville, contaminated water has been found in Hoosick Falls and Ithaca.

These communities, Pallotta pointed out, had no reason to suspect there were any issues with their municipal water sources.

"The problem was not realized until it was too late and many residents began to fall ill," Pallotta said. "Parents send their children to school with the assumption that the drinking water is safe. The enactment of this legislation provides the means for schools to guarantee safe drinking water for children and for our members."

For new schools that begin operations after the effective date of the new regulation, initial water samples must be performed prior to occupancy.

Any schools that tested after Jan. 1, 2015 and are in compliance do not need to retest.

Schools will be required to collect samples "every five years, at a minimum, after initial testing or at a time determined by the commissioner of health," according to Gov. Cuomo's office.

Prior to this law, testing was voluntary.

NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees health and safety for the union, called the legislation "significant."

"We all witnessed what transpired in Flint, MI and other places around the country... Safe water should be a fundamental expectation we should have, especially when we are sending people to schools," Pecorale said. "Testing water should have been a requirement in the past. Now that it is, we can be assured of safe water in our schools or if there is a diagnosis of a problem, it should be quickly fixed."

It is of note that, because schools have intermittent water use patterns, the water often has prolonged contact with plumbing materials that can lead to elevated levels of lead.

For testing purposes, the water must be taken from a cold water supply where water has been motionless in the pipes for at least eight hours but not more than 18.