New Jersey Schools Shut Off Water Due To Lead, Officials Downplay Concerns [Video]

New Jersey’s largest school district reacted to elevated lead levels by shutting off the water fountains. Despite the rather drastic action, Newark officials are working to calm the concerns of local parents. Even as officials try to downplay the lead situation, some say that this red flag finding is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The Associated Press reports that Newark Public Schools contacted the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on Monday when annual testing found elevated lead levels in local schools’ drinking water.

“Annual testing found levels ranging from non-detected to above the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead, which is 15 parts per billion. That level requires additional testing, monitoring and remediation.”

The annual testing was reportedly conducted earlier than scheduled. NJ.com writes the school district was “tipped off” around March 3 about a potential problem, when Louise A. Spencer Elementary School staff members noticed some discoloration in the school’s water supply.

After testing, officials decided to shut off the water at 30 New Jersey schools. Notices were posted that discouraged anyone from drinking the schools’ water, and water bottles and coolers are being shipped to impacted locations.

Although Newark Public Schools were made aware of concerns over water discoloration last week and knew the test results on Monday, teachers and parents were not made aware of any issues until Wednesday. This fact has been a sticking point for concerned parents.

Superintendent Chris Cerf, Mayor Ras Baraka, and DEP Commissioner Bob Martin explained during the Wednesday press conference that officials felt the delay in notification was necessary to fully understand the situation and formulate an adequate response.

“We have a difficult needle to thread here. In an abundance of caution, we are going the extra mile here. I don’t mean to make this sound anything less than urgent.”

According to NJ.com, the public officials were unable to answer the question of just how long children were drinking water containing elevated levels of lead. However, they tried to reassure concerned citizens that there is no known health risk at this time, and the contamination isn’t thought to have posed any serious health hazard.

The shadow of Flint, Michigan, loomed large over the event, with some wondering if the lead situation could be as bad as the scandalous tragedy unfolding in the Midwest.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka responded to the comparison by saying, “I understand in the Flint environment that any sign of elevation is going to make everyone go haywire, but here, the water system in Newark is still safe, it’s still drinkable.”

Any parent in the affected New Jersey school district worried about possible lead poisoning can get their child tested at the Newark Health Department.

Anyone who read an NJ.com report on New Jersey’s lead situation may not be convinced that the problem is as non-threatening as public officials are making it to be. NJ.com suggested in February that Newark was one of 11 cities with “dangerous lead levels.”

The report cites concerns by Isles, Inc., a community advocacy group, which claimed that not only were lead poisoning worries comparable to Flint, but that lead fears when far beyond drinking water.

“In New Jersey, children 6 years of age and younger have continued to ingest lead from paint in windows, doors and other woodwork found in older homes, particularly in older, poorer cities, said Elyse Pivnick, director of environmental health for Isles, Inc., a community development organization based in Trenton.”

Pivnick said that in addition to drinking lead in water, individuals can “breathe it in from dust.” An effort to remove lead paint from affected homes and buildings was initially put together in a lead control assistance fund. That effort was vetoed two weeks ago by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

New Jersey schools are expected to remain in session despite ongoing concerns.

[Photo by Julio Cortez/AP]