District explores next step in lead dilemma

District officials, experts discuss risks of lead ingestion, plans to remediate issue, communication

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood School District announced June 12 the results of testing for lead in school buildings’ water, which showed that nine sources out of 223 had a higher lead action level than that established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for lead in drinking water, news that upset parents and other community members.

The lead action level is 15 parts per billion; anything with a lower count of lead is deemed non-actionable by the EPA. Yet nine sources tested higher than 15 ppb. The hallway by Room 105 in Seth Boyden had the highest lead content, at 444 parts per billion. The other eight instances were at levels significantly lower. At South Mountain School, Room 3 tested at 17.2 ppb; at South Mountain Annex, Room 103 tested at 30.3 ppb, and the hallway outside the room tested at 28.5 ppb; at Tuscan School, Room 22 tested at 46.1 ppb; the concession stand at Underhill Field tested at 15.3 ppb; and at Maplewood Middle School, Room 22 tested at 46.1 ppb, the kitchen at 16.7 ppb and the teacher’s lounge at 46.8 ppb. The district has stated that the water from the MMS kitchen was at no time used for food preparation.

Following this discovery, the district announced that all affected water sources were turned off and covered and will be replaced with new equipment and filtration systems; that all affected schools would have bottled water available free of charge to students and staff; and that all affected sources are being retested.

In response to community concerns, the SOMSD held a public information session at Seth Boyden on Saturday, June 17. Approximately 50 concerned South Orange and Maplewood residents came out that Saturday morning to hear from Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr., SOMSD Property Services Director William Kyle, Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker, second board Vice President Madhu Pai, SOMSD business administrator Paul Roth, LEW Corporation Senior Vice President of Operations Greg Krueger, South Orange health officer John Festa, public health expert Myles O’Malley, Maplewood health officer Robert Roe and public health expert Madeline Brown. LEW Corporation was the organization responsible for the water testing. Additionally, board member Maureen Jones was on hand to translate the meeting into Haitian-Creole should the need have arisen.

The meeting began with panelists describing the water-testing process and what steps had already been taken. Roth explained that, while the school district had tested every water source last spring for lead, following the revelation that several Newark School District buildings had lead in their water, the SOMSD had not found levels of lead in the water that exceeded the EPA action level. However, the school district tested again this past spring in accordance with a new state law that passed in 2016, mandating lead in water testing in N.J. school districts.

“We had voluntarily undertaken testing last year before this requirement was in place,” Baker said, explaining that the district felt the need to test its water after seeing the results from Newark, as well as the stark consequences of lead in water as seen in Flint, Mich.

“The district, on its own, without any provocation from the state, did that testing,” Ramos told a member of the community who said the district’s claim of testing in a “timely manner” was “disingenuous.”

And Roth added that, although the new law requires each district to test its water every six years, the SOMSD is committed to doing it annually. Additionally, the district has been working to replace water fountains over the years and will continue to do so; the district has even committed to adding lead filters to all water fountains.

“I am very pleased that the board is so proactive on this,” Roe said of the Board of Education.

Krueger said the LEW Corporation followed state protocol by taking samples from each water outlet in the district. Each sample, consisting of 250 milliliters, was taken after the water had been left sitting for eight to 48 hours, to simulate the water children would be drinking after a weekend away from school.

“We’ve done sampling for probably two dozen districts throughout the state. All of them had some sort of elevation,” Krueger said, adding that the SOMSD water sources that came in under 15 ppb, for the most part, came in well under the average his company has seen of 10 ppb. For the complete water results from the SOMSD tests in 2016 and 2017, visit https://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/Page/4124.

He added that the samples that come in over 15 ppb are usually within the 20 ppb to 30 ppb range — again fairly consistent with the SOMSD.

“We’ve had other outliers as well,” Krueger said, referring to the Seth Boyden fountain that tested at 444 ppb. “In one, we had 6,000 ppb.”

According to Krueger, while these numbers are alarming, it is important to remember that the majority of child lead-poisoning cases from come paint and paint dust. Krueger said that, while the action level of lead in drinking water is 15 ppb, it is 5 million ppb in paint. The main reason for this difference is that children are not typically drinking paint; however, over the years, paint does chip and turn to dust, resulting in children ingesting it.

Additionally, Krueger pointed out that lead in water is easily broken down and, just because the one Seth Boyden fountain tested at 444 ppb, doesn’t mean it will again, or even that it would again in a sample taken the following week. He said plumbing work in the area could have dislodged a piece of lead that ended up that in that particular sample. While these results may mean that last year’s results were not entirely accurate, they do not prove it or discredit last year’s results, Krueger said, saying water tests are like a “snapshot” of the system.

Nevertheless, after the results came in from the SOMSD, Krueger said the district shut down those water sources immediately and LEW Corporation returned to retest those nine sources, drawing water from them on Thursday, June 15. The results from the retests are expected back either late this week or early next week.

Krueger said he does not have data on lead levels in school water prior to this past year because the testing was not required.

“Water is not typically part of a risk assessment,” Krueger said.

According to Kyle, the water fountain that tested at 444 ppb will be replaced sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The meeting hit a crescendo when an outraged parent questioned why the 444 ppb water fountain was not offline, as had been promised. While the meeting was taking place, the water fountain was capable of distributing water, though it was covered with a plastic sheet.

Kyle said the water had been turned on again to obtain samples to retest Thursday morning and that not turning it off again had been an oversight. A facilities manager went with the parent to shut off the water right then, and both he and Kyle swore they would ensure all water from offending water sources was shut off prior to school on Monday.

Elissa Malespina brought up the fact that three water samples from South Orange Middle School had been misplaced, but Roth assured her that those fountains have been disconnected and are being retested, just to be sure.

“We’re treating them as completely unsafe because we don’t know,” Roth said.

A main concern discussed at the meeting was how parents can go about getting their children tested for lead. The district told parents during the meeting that it regretfully did not yet have a system in place to test children, but was looking into it.

“At this point we don’t have anything set up, but we have reached out to many places for ways to test children for lead,” Roth said.

Baker sympathized with parents, saying that she understood that many of the questions and anxieties stem from this issue.

“These are questions the board started asking immediately upon receiving the information,” Baker said. “Right now the district doesn’t have authorization for student testing.”

Baker explained that the school cannot simply test children at school on Monday because they need prescriptions from doctors in order to draw the blood and they need to have a facility ready to test the blood samples. Due to similar constraints, Newark students were tested through the Newark Health Department, not the Newark School District, Baker said. According to her, Festa and Roe have been “working nonstop” trying to organize this.

In the meantime, Baker said parents can take their children to the family pediatrician and request the test.

“I also know that medical care is not easily accessible to every family in our district. We’re considering our options,” Baker said. “We want to ensure that any family that wants testing has access to it and has access to care afterward.”

Roe explained that finding a lab to do the testing has proved more difficult than originally anticipated.

“What we thought would be an easy thing — finding a lab to test children — has been a very complicated thing, but we’ll keep working on it,” Roe said. “We don’t want to leave anyone out.”

According to Roe, his “pipe dream” is that the district and towns could contract with LabCorp on Millburn Avenue in Maplewood to do the testing, as it is nearby and parents would be able to drop by with their children after making appointments.

“But first we need to know there is no adverse reaction to testing and we need to iron out scripts and billing — the devil is in the details,” Roe said. “We’re trying to get it done as soon as possible.”

While most parents in the audience were sympathetic to the practical constraints the towns and district are facing, they still urged the officials to work faster.

“I know you’re doing the best you can, but you need to do better,” Seth Boyden teacher Sheila Murphy said. “You should do the testing in schools. We need an immediate plan.”

However, O’Malley said that, while testing students is important, if he were running the district, his first step would be to clean up the schools and replace possible faulty fixtures.

Parents also questioned how safe the water is throughout the district, how reliable these results and last year’s results are, and the timing of the district’s actions.

For instance, one parent questioned why the water was tested at the end of the school year, as opposed to the beginning. Baker explained that, in order to comply with new state regulations, the district needed some time to get all its ducks in a row and ensure it was following state protocol.

“As soon as we had a legal system in place, we had to go out to bid for a water tester,” Baker said.

Other parents questioned whether the action level of 15 ppb is reasonable, or if the experts felt the action level should be higher or lower.

“How much lead is safe? The answer is none,” Krueger said, but he added that lead poisoning is much more likely to result from paint, paint dust, lead in toys and even exhaust from old automobiles.

“Every level of lead in a child who is in a developmental stage is harmful,” O’Malley said, though he explained that more lead does not necessarily cause more harm, as a child’s body does hit a saturation point; the effects of toxicity level off — though unfortunately after causing some irreversible issues, such as brain damage.

One parent questioned whether it would be better to lower the action level to 7.5 ppb and asked the district, which has no control over state-mandated action levels, if it could make 7.5 ppb the district action level.

“Lead is a neurotoxin; it kills brain cells. When I hear people say 15 ppb is acceptable — that is false,” the father, who has a background in chemistry, said. “I think 15 ppb is too high. We should reduce the threshold in this community to 7.5 ppb.”

The district agreed that any level of lead is too high, which is why the district plans to replace all drinking fountains and install lead filters.

Brown added that, regardless of what school water tests say, parents should always have their children tested for lead, as that can reveal problems elsewhere.

“Lead is not only a contaminant in our water supply, but is also in our homes, in our soil,” Baker agreed.

O’Malley added: “We don’t just drink water and we don’t just drink water at school.”

As such, Roe offered to come to any Maplewood resident’s home at their request to do a brief survey to look for lead at common sources. At urging from the audience, Festa agreed to do the same for South Orange residents.

One parent was livid as she criticized the BOE for not doing more to identify which water sources had tested above 15 ppb.

“We don’t know the class numbers, we know the teachers,” she said.

Pai apologized for the disconnect, saying that the district is being forced down two divergent paths: communication and crisis mitigation.

“There’s always a chance to do things better,” Pai said, adding that following the meeting the district administration would speak with individual schools to ensure proper information was being released to the school community.

But Ramos disagreed with Pai, saying that the district has done everything it could and has been working in good faith to inform the community, sending out notices via email and robocall as information becomes available. According to Ramos, the district’s two priorities in this situation have been student safety and communication.

“We have done everything that we should do to get the message out as properly as possible,” Ramos said. “Is there a possibility that we didn’t cover every base? Yeah. But we have worked very hard to meet every need in the community.”

Baker added that parents putting their faith in classroom numbers leads to a “false sense of security,” as students throughout each school have access to each water fountain as they walk through the building.

Several other parents, however, did praise the district for its communication on this matter, saying the district had done a fantastic job of dispersing information in a timely manner.

One audience member even thanked the district for not providing teacher’s names alongside room numbers, saying that it would likely have caused added work and anxiety for them, when their main concern should be educating SOMA’s children.

“I don’t think any of you are responsible,” one community member told the panelists. “This system was put in before you.”

With so many older school buildings, there is a higher chance of lead fixtures in the schools, as the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 regulated lead in schools, but not retroactively.

“For decades our community has been reluctant to invest in our infrastructure and it shows,” Baker said.

Nevertheless, O’Malley said the district should have remediated for lead earlier, not just when it suddenly drew attention, thanks to the current water situation in Flint, Mich.

“Somebody early on should have evaluated those tanks and they should not have been in our school system,” O’Malley said.

But O’Malley was quick to point out that the fault lies with everyone, not just the district.

“I’m not blaming anybody, I’m not blaming this community — I’m part of this community,” the Maplewood resident said. “Why didn’t I ask when I put my children through school here about lead in the water? Let’s get the … problem solved.”

Some audience members agreed with this.

“I do hold every one of you accountable, and I hold myself accountable, and the people in this audience accountable,” one parent said. “We have a responsibility, we have to step up.

“If we tested one year ago and now, at what point did it become faulty, or was the identification point the new regulations?” he asked. “Don’t let kids drink from any fountains until we know where the fault is. Consider yourselves fired until you do your job.”

While Pai understood how emotionally charged the lead issue is, she emphasized that not all fountains are affected.

“You’re allowed to be emotional — this is scary,” Pai said. “But we happen to know this is not a systemic issue.”

“We do not believe this is a systemic issue through the entire district,” Roth said at the meeting. “NJAW, our water provider, tested the water and it was within the limits.” Roth explained that, if the issue were with the water, it would have shown up in NJAW’s tests as well as in more than just nine district water sources.

Roe agreed, saying, “My sense is that the water in the water fountains, except for this one instance (of 444 ppb), is fine.”

Photos by Yael Katzwer