Tuesday, June 25, 2019

High levels of lead dust found in city schools via an independent WNYC investigation

photo: WNYC/Gothamist

Yesterday Christopher Werth of WNYC radio posted a story online at Gothamist and broadcast on WNYC about an investigation he undertook in four NYC schools in which he found high levels of lead dust on the floor and windowsills from peeling paint. WNYC had emailed the principals and PTAs at over 30 public elementary schools built before 1960 — the year lead-paint was banned in New York City --  and gained entrance to only these four.

Werth took samples in preK to second grade classrooms and in common areas shared by students age six and below -- who are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning. In each of these schools,  there were serious violations that exceeded limits adopted by the City Council for floors -- currently at 10 micrograms per square foot, to be lowered to five micrograms by 2021.  Some samples contained lead 1000 times above this limit.

The reality is there is NO safe amount of lead in the blood; and the lowest levels that can be detected have significant negative impacts on a child's cognitive abilities and behavior.

Similarly, a recent audit by the NY State Comptroller  found preK classrooms in CBOs and in public schools with "potential fire and safety hazards,  toxic cleaning supplies" - and in at least one case, peeling lead paint.

DOE has a poor history when it comes to testing for lead.  For years, district officials insisted on using a discredited method to test in school water, by flushing the water first -- even when this method violated EPA guidance and by 2016, a new state law.

As Dr. Morri Markowitz, lead expert at Montefiore hospital, says in the Gothamist article, “Do I trust the New York City Department of Education to conduct a fair, objective study in their schools? I would say that this is not an agency that has a long-term record of credibility on this particular issue.”

To make things worse, the city's most rigorous public health laws that regulate lead do not apply to DOE schools, as Werth explains:

"Since 1997, for example, child care programs — which also enroll 3K- and pre-K-aged children — have not been permitted to have “lead-based paint on any interior surface,” according to Article 47 of the NYC Health Code. And under Local Law One, private landlords who are renting a newly-available unit are required to fully abate lead paint on doorways, windows and other high-impact surfaces, which tend to create significant amounts of lead dust.

Neither of these provisions apply to schools."

This is in part because the Council has uniquely limited authority over DOE, which is legally still considered a state agency even under Mayoral control.  Yet the Department has been expanding 3K and preK programs and assuming more authority over child care services, which is slowly but surely further whittling away the ability of the Council to make law and provide checks and balances.

A recent audit by the NY State Comptroller also found preK classrooms in CBOs and public schools with "potential fire and safety hazards,  toxic cleaning supplies" and in at least one case, peeling lead paint.

In response to the WNYC investigation, Mark Treyger, chair of the NYC Council Education Committee commented,

“There's a gap in terms of our ability to legislate over the DOE directly on this issue.  Quite frankly, they don't like when the City Council has certain power over their policies and regulations and rules. However, I will not accept resistance from DOE on this front.”

The reality is that since DOE is not under municipal control, new state laws may have to be passed to require stricter scrutiny and remediation for lead paint in NYC schools, even as DOE is absorbing more and more power over childhood services that used to be given to other city agencies, such as Early Learn.

And yet there has been little push back by the Speaker or the City Council as a whole to ensure adequate checks and balances which would require advocating for municipal control.

More on the WNYC findings and the Mayor's response in the twitter "Moment" below.

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