Lead contamination ‘pervasive’ in drinking water in Atlantic County schools

New data shows that the majority of drinking water at schools across Atlantic County has lead contamination. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

New data shows that the majority of drinking water at schools across Atlantic County has lead contamination. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Lead has been detected in the vast majority of drinking water in school districts across Atlantic County. In two school districts – Galloway Township and Pleasantville – lead was detected in almost half of the faucets and water fountains.

The information was compiled in a joint study from the Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center and the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality. They wrote that contamination “has been particularly pervasive” in county schools.

The organizations were able to obtain testing data from 66 out of the 72 schools in the county from the state Education Department. Data for six schools – three in the Buena Regional School District and three in the Hammonton Public School District – weren’t publicly available.

Of the data that was obtained, the study found that 92% of schools had lead in their water at one or more taps.

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The organizations also report that every school in Pleasantville and Galloway Township school districts had lead in its water at one or more taps. Three schools in Pleasantville and one in Galloway Township had more than 50% of their taps contaminated with lead.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says lead in school drinking water should not exceed one part per billion. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no level of lead exposure is safe.

“Our study shows that from the moment Atlantic County kids enter their school buildings, they face the pervasive threat of lead in drinking water,” said Julie Geskey, clean water associate with Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center.

Geskey added that the results in the study “are just the tip of the iceberg” in showing that lead in school drinking water is a pervasive problem overall. She points to a similar study conducted in Philadelphia released in February and one her organization did in Bergen County in 2017.

“What we saw here in Galloway and in Pleasantville and in the rest of Atlantic County; it just really reflects what we’ve seen elsewhere that lead is a pervasive issue in our schools,” she said.

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Dawn Rice-Bivens, a parent in Pleasantville, said no amount of lead is acceptable in the drinking water of any school.

“The cities should do their best to be able to provide anything from the bottle stations to the filters; whatever they need to do to help with this,” she said.

The Pleasantville school board is supposed to discuss the matter Wednesday evening. It’s president, Jerome Powers, said they will be coming up with some policies.

“This has to be one of the walls that have to be knocked down,” he said.

Khaleem Shabazz, vice president of the Atlantic City Council and the head of the city’s NAACP chapter, said municipal utilities authority and the school district are moving “aggressively” to mitigate lead in the water.

“Everyone is concerned about the future of our young people [and] the wellbeing of our young people,” he said. “They should not be exposed to any amount of lead in the water.”

Galloway Township schools disputed the finding that 45% of taps in the district had lead in the water.

Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said, in a statement, that the study “promoted inaccurate information” based on data from a 2017 report. She added that the joint study “does not include any of the remediation measures taken by the District, nor does it include the fact that the District is currently in the process of completing its next required round of testing.”

“The District has taken every step necessary to ensure safe drinking water, including following all state and local requirements,” she said, adding that organizers failed to reach out to the district directly for information.

Geskey, in response, said that the report analyzed publicly available data from the Education Department and did not examine whether any remediation was done or its effectiveness.

“That’s really beyond the scope of the report,” she added. “We were outlining the fact that there was an issue based on this data that is reported and made publicly available.”

The Rev. Willie Francois, president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, added there is a “moral charge” to care for children adding that that lead in school drinking water is “structural sin” that can be atoned for.

“We bring to the campaign a fierce urgency to remediate now,” he said. “But we also bring to this campaign an understanding of the sacredness of the lives of children.”

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