By Allison Lau and Katryna Perera
Nestled between Manhattan and Queens is a small island that has been receiving more attention than usual–Roosevelt Island. To be precise, the island’s school–P.S./I.S. 217. It’s been in the headlines with reports of water laced with lead at the levels seen in Flint, Mich.
Specifically, the New York Department of Water tested fountains and faucets in the school in early February, using a new lead testing kit developed by the state. Record-breaking results were discovered in eight of the elementary school’s water pipes. News outlets including the New York Post and ABC News reported on the elevated levels, comparing the school to the town of Flint, Michigan, where water is not consumable due to toxic levels of lead.
Even though Roosevelt Island’s results indicate what could potentially be a public health crisis, New Yorkers on the island, for the most part, seem far from concerned about lead impeding on the safety of their children. Many parents and the school’s officials argue that the problem of lead-tainted pipes has been overblown by the press because the lead was found in faucets that have since been sealed.
“The school’s water fountains are safe for drinking and the sinks used to prepare foods are safe,” said Principal Mandana Beckman, in an official statement to the Parent Teacher Association. According to Beckman, there were eight water fixtures in the school that indicated elevated lead levels during recent testing. “Six sinks are not used by students or staff, one sink is in a classroom and one handwashing sink is in the kitchen. All of these fixtures have been shut off.”
Beckman also reassured parents that the Department of Education is in the process of following up with testing and the school is taking preemptive measures to proactively shut off water fountains that may potentially be affected.
An official at the state’s Bureau of Water Supply Protection explained that the school’s action should take care of the immediate problem.
“The longer water is in contact with water fixtures, the more lead will leach onto water,” said Kim Evans, public health specialist of lead and copper for the New York State’s Bureau of Water Supply Protection.
According to Evans, the state recently developed a testing model that requires schools to test water based on the period of time it remains motionless in the water fixtures. The new model simulates situations where water would be consumed after being motionless for long periods of times such as summer breaks and weekends.
“If the lab analysis showed more than 15 parts per billion of lead, then it’d have to be turned off or removed and then retesting would be done,” said Evans. “There is currently no specific timeframe for retesting because there are so many variables for each school.”
Schools are required to provide access to safe drinkable water through fountains or provide remediations such as bottled water for students, Evans indicated.
Before New York state developed a regional testing protocol for all schools, several New York City schools proactively began testing their water. Evans said there was discussion as to whether this testing would be accepted as it did not follow the new regulations, but then the city made the decision to re-sample their water and re-do the tests, according to the new standards.
“The big issue was that we were glad that they were being proactive and did testing,” said Evans. “Through no fault of theirs when the new requirements came out, there was a big group of schools that unfortunately didn’t meet the testing requirements.
Meanwhile, parents of P.S./I.S. 217, like Dawn Jones, whose child attends the school, feel news outlets have sensationalized the findings out of proportion.
“It was nothing like the crisis in Flint, where the problem was with the main water lines, not isolated taps,” said Jones, who admitted that there was some initial panic among parents at the outset but that it was quickly eased.
“A flurry of emails had circulated between parents in my class. I saw that some moms were panicking and overreacting because of the article,” said Jones. “But a calmer mom pointed out the steps taken by the school, and the furor seemed to simmer down pretty quickly.”
Jones also said she was aware of some parents medically testing their child for high lead levels after the report but that she was not worried as her eight-year-old son already brings his own water bottle to school.
“I’m not concerned about the safety,” said Dr. Fumihiro Ogawa, whose daughters also attend P.S./I.S. 217. “I tested my children when the announcement was made and nothing showed up.”
Ogawa indicated a simple saliva swab, urine test or blood work can help indicate harmful abnormalities due to toxic exposure from lead.
The lead issue seems to be isolated to the school, as no other businesses on Roosevelt Island reported having high levels. Jonathan Hoo, owner of the neighboring restaurant — Riverwalk Bar and Grill, said a large majority of the buildings on the island were recently constructed, but because the school has been around longer, it has old pipes, which could explain why it is an isolated issue.
Parents have mixed feelings about taking extra precautions and bringing their children to the hospital for medical exams.
“I sent my kids with a water bottle and told them ‘for now, drink from your water bottle and not from the fountain,’” said parent Sarah Lenzi. “But honestly, it’s not really an issue. I haven’t gotten them tested because they haven’t shown signs or symptoms. None of their peers have shown anything and I’m a pretty paranoid mom.”
In children, early onset symptoms of lead poisoning include intermittent vomiting, nausea, constipation, headaches and abdominal pain. Long-term exposure can cause more serious issues such as neurological and developmental delays. But lead poisoning can be easily detected and treated.
Another parent had something else on her mind besides lead: the candy the students were allowed to consume on Valentine’s Day.
“That had a bigger impact on his health than this lead situation,” said parent Rachel Dowling. “I had my son’s blood work done recently and I’m sure it would’ve been picked up if it there had been something.”
“A lead-level blood test will detect any lead present in the body,” according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Once diagnosed, medication is the easiest form of treatment along with further avoiding the source of exposure.
P.S./I.S. 217’s student health center has not seen an increase in students since the announcement was made according to Teresa Rizzuto, the school’s head nurse. “Nobody has called me,” she said.
Rizzuto has also not seen any signs of lead poisoning in the children and said that no testing measures have been implemented.
“I was not told to test the blood levels,” saud Rizzuto.
New York City Lens reached out to the principal for a statement, however, she declined to comment. “I have a school to run,” she said.