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Lead is a soft, heavy metallic element with many industrial uses, including paint. Lead can damage the nervous system and kidneys and even be fatal. It also may affect brain development in children. The two main sources of contamination are paint chips and dust — which toddlers may eat because they taste sweet — and drinking water.

Lead in paint

The Department of Education stopped using lead paint in 1980, but it can still be found in about 8 out of 10 schools, as well as in countless apartments and houses in New York City. Lead paint poses a problem only when it is disturbed or deteriorating. Therefore, the danger in schools is small. Some of the worst problems were fixed during the 1993 asbestos cleanup, and school officials are supposed to keep a close watch on what's left to see if it becomes damaged.

DOE Policy on testing for lead in paint

City regulations require the DOE to inspect classrooms and common spaces that are utilized by children under the age of six in school buildings built before 1978.

In practice, the DOE formally inspects covered classrooms three times a year and common spaces once a year. Custodian engineers record the results of these inspections on the Paint Film Condition Visual Inspection form. These inspection results area available on the DOE's Lead-based Paint Safety webpage.

If peeling paint is observed, an independent contractor tests whether the paint is lead-based. If it is confirmed to be lead-based paint or paint of an unknown origin, the peeling paint is stripped, sealed with a certified primer and painted over. Deteriorating paint on impact points, such as radiators and window sills, is completely removed.

If this work is occurring in a classroom, students are relocated in the interim. If it is occurring in a common space, it is made inaccessible to students. Once the lead-based paint has been abated, an independent certified inspector technician takes dust wipes that are tested to make sure the room is safe for staff and children to re-enter.

You can help by reporting any peeling paint or plaster to your chapter leader and /or custodial engineer. Never scrape, sand or attempt to remove it yourself, as this may generate lead dust, creating a problem where none had previously existed. Remember that if lead paint is intact it does not present a problem.

Lead in water

Some lead exists naturally in drinking water supplies; it also leaches in from lead pipes or solder in the street, building or water cooler. The UFT insists that bottled water be used in schools that experience elevated lead levels in the water until the problem is solved. New York City is adding a harmless, tasteless chemical to the water supply to coat the inside of pipes, thereby preventing lead from leaching into flowing water.

In 1992 the UFT insisted that the chancellor establish a lead task force to see that any hazards are corrected. The board acted in unison with the UFT to implement the recommendations made by the task force.

During 2002, the Department of Education, with EPA oversight, tested lead levels in water in all city schools. A water flushing program for custodians was established as an added precaution.

Advise parents that to protect their children they need to:

  • Get their landlord to remove peeling paint in their homes. A city law requires this.
  • Feed their children foods rich in iron and calcium — like eggs, lean red meat, beans, and dairy products — which lessen the absorption of lead.
  • Not store food and liquids in lead crystal, imported or old pottery.
  • Make sure their children don't chew anything covered with dust.
  • Have their children wash their hands frequently.

DOE Policy on testing for lead in water

State regulations mandating the testing for lead in water in all public New York schools went into effect on Sept. 6, 2016. To comply with these state laws, the DOE has been testing all water outlets in all New York City schools for lead. Schools are to undergo water testing for lead every three years. Chapter leaders should have received the results from the testing conducted at schools via their principals. As part of this state regulation, notification letters on the results must be sent to school staff and parents of students. You may also access your school’s results on the DOE's Water Safety website.

The UFT Safety and Health department receives all reports from the DOE and is monitoring the testing to ensure notification and remediation occurs according to these new laws. We are also recommending that chapter leaders walk through their schools to ensure that where there were elevated levels that those particular sinks or fountains are not used for drinking. Do note that because lead does not absorb through the skin, state regulations do not require sinks that can be used for handwashing to be shut off if a sign is posted to tell people that the water is NOT to be used for drinking but can be used for handwashing. The sign is only a temporary measure. Water service to outlets with the express purpose of drinking or cooking (i.e., fountains and kitchen sinks) must be shut off. Notify us if this is not being followed.

Following findings of elevated levels, the DOE will remediate the problem by identifying and removing whatever the source of the lead may be (i.e., brass fixtures, valves, fittings, solder, etc). The water will be retested for lead afterward. If the lead levels are below the state standard of 5 parts per billion (ppb), it can be returned to service and the sign be removed. If not, further remediation is required until test results show that lead levels are below 5 ppb at that outlet.  

As for the health effects and potential exposure, we are recommending to members who frequented an outlet with elevated levels and think they have been exposed to lead to ask their doctors for a blood lead test. The water we source from the city is rigorously tested to ensure that it is safe; however, it may pick up lead once it enters a school building with lead in its plumbing system and especially after the water sits for long periods of time in pipes that may contain lead. Flushing by the custodian and continuous use by occupants in the building should move water along and prevents lead contamination from water sitting in pipes over long periods of time. Citywide water testing in schools has occurred three times in the past, and historically we have not yet had a case of lead poisoning among members (and students) that was linked back to the water in their school. Citywide water testing in schools has occurred multiple times in the past, and historically we have not yet had a case of lead poisoning among members (or students) that was linked back to the water in their school.

Nonetheless, we still recommend that if members think they have been exposed to lead that they ask their doctors for a blood lead test. Bring your school’s notification letter to your doctor and request a blood test that can determine lead levels in the body. Let the UFT Safety and Health Department know if you have a diagnosis of elevated blood lead levels in your school. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact your district representative, borough safety and health specialist or the UFT safety and health department.