Combatting Lead in Our Water
Special Projects Fund
September 21, 2018
Major attention has been focused recently on lead paint hazards in public housing in New York City. Less attention has been paid to lead levels in the City’s water supplies, despite the significant health risks that elevated levels can pose.
In 2012, with evidence that even low levels of lead can be detrimental to child development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adjusted its blood-level exposure threshold. Despite this change, New York City continued to use the earlier, less-stringent level as the standard threshold to indicate a high lead level in children. While a 2016 City report found that approximately 1,000 children tested positive for high lead levels under the older CDC threshold, an analysis by New York Public Radio (WNYC) found that application of the revised CDC standard would have identified an additional 5,000 children with high levels. In 2017, the Department of Education (DOE) announced results from a second series of tests: 83% of public schools had water outlets with lead levels well above the outdated threshold. WNYC supplemented these findings by mapping every school water fountain that tested positive for lead and made the data public. In 2018, NYSHealth awarded WNYC a grant to continue to identify and address lead exposure in the water sources at NYC parks and playgrounds.
Under this grant, WNYC coupled its investigative reporting with crowdsourcing, by involving community residents in testing water and soil sources. In consultation with water-testing experts and a scientific advisory panel, WNYC gathered data and identified which City parks pose the highest public health risks. It then tested the lead levels of public drinking water fountains located in these high-risk areas and reported on the tested samples. Results were developed into a data-driven reporting series, “Lead in Our Water,” revealing the impact of lead poisoning on the thousands of children who have already been affected. WNYC chronicled the stories of children who tested positive for dangerous levels of lead from previous decades to the present day. The “Lead in Our Water” series aired through WNYC radio programs and digital media.