Changes in Testing Produce Different Results

At PS/IS 217, No Reason for Panic Over Lead in the Water Supply

Updated 15 weeks ago Peter McCarthy
Unseen sources of lead
Unseen sources of lead
Photo by Paul Goyette / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

In spite of inflammatory reports in link bait addicted media, the only thing that changed in the water supply at PS/IS 217 is how it was tested. Tossing hot button references to Flint in the mix misleads and unnecessarily alarms readers.

As previously reported in the Roosevelt Islander blog, tests for lead in faucets at our local school showed concentrations higher than what those deemed tolerable for consumption by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the reasons are not clearly explained.

What you need to know about the high lead levels:

  • Neither PS/IS 217 nor the Board of Education, which spent $13 million testing last year, are negligent.
  • New York City's water supply is virtually lead free.
  • Lead (and other minerals) leaches into water from pipes when not in regular use.
  • The BOE changed its method of testing, exercising an abundance of caution after receiving recommendations from outside experts, and wound up with elevated results.

But what about those alarming results?

In all likelihood, nothing has changed at PS/IS 217 since the last round of testing, and it like all City schools has a rigorous protocol for reacting to test results.

Last year, after the Flint, Michigan, disaster was reported, New York set out to test the water in 1,500 schools. According to a report in the New York Times, using a method that included pre-stagnation flushing, "workers went into schools at night, turned on all outlets and let the water run for two hours. The outlets were then turned off, and the water sat in pipes overnight for eight hours before samples were taken."

The city reported after that only 1% of water outlets exceeded the EPA action level. Following their guidelines, faucets with bad results were shut off and replaced.

But shortly after the results were in, the State Health Department issued new guidelines that discouraged pre-stagnation flushing as a prelude to testing. The City “out of an abundance of caution” decided to retest all the buildings under an update protocol. Different testing yielded different results.

In other words, conditions didn't change; the tests did. And eight faucets at PS/IS 217 had to be replaced.

The findings at our Roosevelt Island school weren't especially unique, in spite of alarming reports in DNAInfo and the New York Post. Similar results have been reported system-wide and across all the boroughs, although only a third of the schools have been tested.

And linkages to the disaster in Flint would be comically inept efforts at link baiting if they didn't frighten people unnecessarily while drawing them to advertisers.

So, what should I do, if anything?

Be aware that excessive levels of lead have been reported in more than 2,000 municipal water supplies in the U.S., affecting over 6 million people, according to a report in USA Today. More important for us locally, New York City's is not one of those systems. And the reason is simple.

Fresh water supplies, such as those used by the City, rarely have hig levels of lead. Lead and other contaminants usually enter water supplies after leaving treatment plants and entering downstream supply systems and buildings.

We agree with our reader and Residents Association Council Member Dave Evans: "I am now going to request a review of how the water supply to my residential building is tested and how often."

What you are likely to find is that while testing and chemical treatment for the protection of equipment, such as boilers and pumps, is routine, testing for drinking water is unlikely. Building managers usually leave that to the City water supply, which is unquestionably safe when it reaches your building, and unless you've had a maintenance working come to your apartment to run a test, that's certain to be the case.

To be clear, neither you nor your building manager have any idea what the contamination level is in your tap water, but you should be aware that, the older your building, the more likely it is to have pipes that will leach lead. Every building, except the Octagon and Southtown, were built before PS/IS 217.

Along with that, you will probably find that your building has no protocol of any kind for dealing with lead contaminated water since, as far as they know, none exists.

Experts recommend...

  1. Run your faucets for two minutes before using water for drinking or use a filter or, my family's preference, bottled water from a reputable source.
  2. Never use hot tap water for drinking or cooking. Heating consolidates minerals in the water and facilitates additional leaching from pipes.
Concerns about lead and other contaminants in your water supply are wise, but our school buildings, including PS/IS 217 are likely to be safer sources of water and more frequently tested than those most of us rely on at home every day.
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