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Over 900 NYC classrooms serving the city’s youngest children have deteriorating lead paint, new data show

August 1, 2019 Reema Amin, Alex Zimmerman and Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat NY

More than 900 New York City elementary school classrooms have tested positive for lead after inspections revealed the presence of peeling, chipped or otherwise deteriorating lead paint, according to new data released Wednesday night by the education department.

The troubling results mark the first time the department has ever released statistics on lead paint in classrooms and were discovered during inspections of 5,408 classrooms in aging buildings in the wake of a WNYC investigation that found evidence of dangerous lead levels in four schools. The city pledged to make the classrooms safe before the school year begins this September and announced several changes to improve testing.

In all, the education department searched for lead paint in 797 school buildings built before 1985 that serve students under the age of six in pre-K and kindergarten. Officials found deteriorating lead paint in 302 of them — or nearly 38 percent.

In a separate battery of tests, the city released a new round of inspection reports for water faucets in schools, which revealed that 80 percent of roughly 500 examined buildings contained at least one faucet with elevated lead. Officials said problems with nearly all of those faucets have already been addressed.

“Our schools are safe, and this summer we’ve enhanced our protocols and strengthened communication with families around the steps we take to prevent lead exposure for kids under six,” said Miranda Barbot, spokeswoman for the education department, in a statement.

It’s unclear how the 938 classrooms that need remediation compare to past annual inspections. While custodians are supposed to flag peeling or chipped paint in these classrooms, the results have never before been publicly released or catalogued in a database. The city has not yet fulfilled a Chalkbeat open records request filed last month for inspection reports from the past five years.

Brooklyn posted the highest number of school buildings testing positive for lead paint, with 114 buildings, followed by 90 in the Bronx; 48 in Queens; 29 in Manhattan; and 21 in Staten Island. Two school buildings — P.S. 108 in Brooklyn and P.S. 49 in the Bronx — each had a dozen classrooms test positive for lead paint, the highest figure for a single school building.

Exposure to lead can have devastating consequences for children who may eat paint chips or inhale tainted dust. Lead can interfere with brain development, cause aggressiveness or inattentiveness, and impede academic achievement. But simple interventions, like making sure children have access to nutritious food, can help treat the effects and even improve school performance.

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Officials have vowed to formally log inspections three times a year, record the results in a centralized database, and create an online tool for logging complaints. In addition to testing pre-K and kindergarten classrooms, starting this coming school year, custodians will begin checking first grade classrooms for lead-based paint. A spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers called it a “good change” and said the union will monitor results.

The database is a “really great start” at making information available to families, said Dr. Morri Markowitz, director of the Lead Poisoning Treatment and Prevention Program at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. But he raised concerns about how robust the training will be for custodians — will they move all the furniture away and look behind radiators, for example? In general, he said the city’s testing methods don’t fully remove the risk of lead exposure.

“To me, the first survey that should be done in all those classrooms is not a visual inspection — it should be, is there any lead paint on any of the surfaces? Markowitz said. “On the doors, the walls, the baseboard, and the ceilings. Anywhere in that room.”

XRF testing, which uses X-Ray technology to locate lead underneath layers of paint, should be done across all school buildings even without chipping paint, said Reuven Frankel, a private attorney who regularly represents clients in lead exposure cases. It’s a method the city is using to detect lead in 135,000 NYCHA units, and officials said Wednesday they have been assessing that option for classrooms that serve children under the age of 6. He likened the city’s plan to “playing Russian Roulette” with children because the city isn’t eradicating the risk before it could be ingested.

The city’s Department of Health, which also bears some responsibility for monitoring lead exposure in children, deferred questions about the data to the education department. But spokesman Patrick Gallahue said the department’s “protective protocols help to ensure that schools remain safe.” The Environmental Protection Agency says that lead paint that remains intact and undisturbed “is usually not a problem,” but paint on surfaces that gets a lot of wear and tear, such as banisters or window sills, can be hazardous.

At the least, students in affected classrooms should get blood tests, Markowitz said. While New York health care providers are required to test 1- and 2-year-olds for lead in their blood and assess children annually for risk of lead exposure up to the age of 6, reports have found that children often go untested in New York City and that wouldn’t capture all children in these buildings.

When asked if the education department would be reaching out to families with children exposed to the affected classroom, a department spokesperson appeared to put that burden back on families, pointing to the new online database and emphasizing that remediation work is done year-round.

Mayor Bill de Blasio — who was appearing in his second presidential debate Wednesday when the results were publicly released — has come under withering criticism for failing, like previous administrations, to inspect for lead paint in public housing facilities. This oversight is just one example of mismanagement that recently led to the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee NYCHA, the public housing authority.

The city has previously faced criticism, too, for its handling of lead testing in school water faucets, after news reports revealed the education department was not following standards recommended by experts.

The department changed its methods, and the results of the latest tests were also released Wednesday. Less than 5 percent of the almost 50,000 evaluated taps had elevated levels. This is the second inspection process since 2016. The education department said in a statement that all but 15 faucets had been remediated, stressing that any sources of drinking or cooking water that are found to be contaminated are immediately taken off line.

Samuel Park contributed reporting.

The city looked at all 797 school buildings built before 1985 that serve students under the age of six in pre-K and kindergarten. Officials found 486 schools with deteriorating paint, 302 of which had at least one classroom where deteriorating lead paint was discovered. In this searchable database, you can find data for every school in which the city found deteriorating paint. This database includes the results for the classrooms in those 486 schools and indicates whether lead paint was found in each classroom. City officials have pledged to remediate any classrooms with lead paint by the start of school in September.

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

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