The water from one drinking fountain in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx has 50 times as much lead in it as permitted by federal regulations, according to an official test. Another at a tennis court in Cunningham Park in Queens has nearly 23 times above what officials consider safe.
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has published early results from its program to test for lead contamination at its public drinking fountains. And while many of the numbers are alarming, they’re also “very common” for cities with aging, lead-based plumbing, according to Marc Edwards, a civil engineer at Virginia Tech who helped uncover harmful lead levels in Flint, Michigan.
A Gothamist/WNYC analysis of the city’s data found that, out of the 448 fountains checked thus far, 20 fountains (4.5 percent of the early total) tested above the federal standard of 15 parts per billion (ppb). By comparison, in a similar exercise carried out in New York City public schools in 2017, roughly 8 percent of water sources tested above the same threshold once all the results were tallied.
The testing program is a component of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s LeadFreeNYC campaign to eliminate childhood lead exposure in the city. The parks department said drinking water from public fountains is not a known source of exposure, but the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, said the tests “will ensure that we leave no stone unturned.”
Research has shown that even low levels of lead exposure can cause reduced IQ, hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. In adults, lead is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and other health issues.
Sampling in parks and playgrounds started on May 6th in Queens. All of the city’s 3,500-plus public fountains are scheduled to be tested by June 14th. Two samples are drawn for each source, one after a fountain has sat unused for up to 18 hours prior to testing, and another after a flush of several seconds to help determine how deep the source of contamination in the plumbing goes. Any fountain that exceeds 15 ppb will be turned off until it can be fixed, officials say. Test results are to be updated on a weekly basis.
At the Dry Harbor Playground in Forest Park in Queens, a drinking fountain where children regularly play came in at 296 ppb, nearly 20 times the federal standard.
“There's no doubt that that's too much lead to be drinking from a fountain,” Edwards said. “You should be worried about it. You should remediate that tap. That shows there's a hazard.”
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What adds to the difficulty, he said, is that lead tests can vary widely over time, even from the same water source. A fountain that tests low in one round of testing can test high in the next.
“We used to just think, you tested and you got one number, and that characterized how dangerous that fountain was. And that's just not true,” said Edwards. “How can we say any fountain, any tap is safe after just one or maybe two or even three samplings? What we're talking about are little pieces of lead falling off from the plumbing into the water at semi- random intervals, and it really makes this a nightmare from a testing and a public-exposure perspective.”
The parks department would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the results. But the data so far do not indicate a problem anywhere near the scale of what Flint experienced after officials in 2014 switched in to a new, more corrosive water source that caused lead-based plumbing to leach the poisonous element into drinking water. There, the highest test came in at 13,000 ppb.
After this initial round of testing, the parks department has said it will continue to test 20 percent of its drinking fountains annually. New York City currently treats water with orthophosphate to prevent corrosion in old plumbing.
At the same time, many environmental and public-health advocates say the federal standard of 15 ppb—established by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1991—is outdated, and are encouraging lawmakers in New York State to lower that threshold.
Several states, such as Michigan and Illinois, have already lowered their action level to 5 ppb. By that metric, many more New York City’s public drinking fountains would fail the test — over 60 fountains tested thus far (close to 14 percent), according to the data published to date.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that lead levels in school drinking fountains shouldn’t be any higher than 1 ppb. Fully half of the fountains tested so far exceed this level.
“I personally would like to see a lower number, but the costs really do go up almost exponentially as you drop that standard,” Edwards said. “The costs of getting this problem fixed — it's probably going to triple or even quadruple.”
How concerned should parents be if their children regularly drank from a playground fountain that turned out to be contaminated with lead?
“I would take the approach that any harm that was done can't be undone. There's uncertainty,” said Edwards. “The only thing you could do is be happy that some steps will be taken so that that hazardous tap will be taken out of service. And other kids won't be exposed to those high levels.”
Christopher Werth is a senior editor in WNYC’s Narrative Unit. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_werth.