Lead test results show large variances

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood School District had 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 in drinking water, news that upset parents and other community members. Upon receiving these results, the district retested each of the affected sources and those results, released July 20, showed an improvement, with unacceptable levels of lead in only two of the water sources.

The lead action level is 15 parts per billion; anything with a lower count is deemed non-actionable by the EPA. Yet nine sources tested higher than 15 ppb in June. The hallway by Room 105 in Seth Boyden had the highest lead content, at 444 parts per billion. The other eight instances were at significantly lower levels. 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 this summer; all affected schools would have bottled water available free of charge to students and staff; and all affected sources were being retested.

According to Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr., the two water sources that still tested above the 15 ppb lead action level were Room 3 at South Mountain School at 18.9 ppb and Room 122 at Tuscan School at 27.9 ppb. The district had previously released the result regarding the Seth Boyden water fountain that initially tested at 444 ppb; the second round of testing yielded results lower than 1 ppb.

“We realize that these results are confusing,” Ramos wrote in a July 20 letter to the community. “The Board of Education and district administration continues to have more questions than concrete answers, especially around the variance in the testing results, even within a single water source such as the Seth Boyden water fountain. According to our lead testing company, LEW Corp., lead results can and do vary, depending on a number of often changing factors, including water velocity, temperature and the amount of time water is in contact with the building’s plumbing. Additionally, the routes that water flows through the plumbing system of the building and the plumbing materials that the water will come into contact with will vary depending on the frequency and duration of the use of the various water fountains and faucets throughout the school.”

Nevertheless, the school district is taking a “better safe than sorry” approach to these fluctuating water results. As such, during the summer, the district will replace all nine of the water sources that initially tested above the action level for lead. Additionally, the district is installing filtration systems on all drinking fountains and food-preparation sinks as a preventative measure.

“We are undertaking these measures to provide additional safety of our drinking water for students and staff,” Ramos said.

District business administrator Paul Roth told the News-Record via email that the remediation of the nine initially affected water sources will cost approximately $10,000, while the purchase and installation of filters on all the district’s plumbing fixtures will cost approximately $35,000.

Following the announcement of possible lead in the school system’s drinking water, many parents requested that the schools test their children for lead.

“While our health experts continue to remind the public that exposure to lead paint and other environmental stimulants are the greatest dangers for lead poisoning, we know that parents remain concerned that their children may have been exposed to lead,” Ramos said.

However, at a June 17 public forum, Maplewood health officer Robert Roe and South Orange health office John Festa explained that testing children for lead is not a straightforward issue. According to the health officers, some of the main issues are that the schools are not authorized to perform lead testing on children and that the children would need prescriptions from doctors for the testing.

“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 at the June 17 meeting. “We don’t want to leave anyone out.”

Following that June 17 meeting, the school district and health officers continued to work together, along with the office of state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, to find a solution. Having your children tested for lead is optional. Jasey represents the 27th Legislative District, which includes Maplewood and South Orange.

For those who wish to have their children tested, the district suggests that parents consult with their primary care physician or pediatrician. If the family’s physician is unavailable, Ramos stated that lead testing and follow-up can be provided by Dr. Mary Cantey, who accepts Medicaid and NJ Family Care plans; Cantey’s office is located at 312 South Orange Ave. in South Orange and families can make appointments by calling 973-532-7898.

For students with limited or no health insurance, the district has secured lead testing and follow-up through Zufall, located at 95 Northfield Ave. in West Orange. For an appointment, call 973-325-2266.

“Zufall is a Federally Qualified Health Center,” Roth told the News-Record. “FQHC’s specialize in providing services for underserved populations and offer a sliding fee scale based upon each family’s individual needs. Zufall bills the patient based upon the sliding fee scale.”

According to Roth, although the school district will not directly receive the results of child lead testing, the local health departments are informed whenever a child tests positive for lead.

For more information regarding lead testing or the effects of lead in drinking water, contact the Maplewood Health Department at 973-762-8120, ext. 4400, or the South Orange Health Department at 973-378-7715, ext. 2020.

“The South Orange-Maplewood School District is committed to protecting our students, teachers and staff,” Ramos said. “We are grateful to the Maplewood and South Orange health departments, town officials, local health care providers and local experts in lead contamination for their assistance and support.”