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Lead detected in drinking water at almost all Atlantic County school systems tested, study shows

The analysis looked at lead testing data from 66 schools in all 25 school districts in Atlantic County serving 43,000 students.

Workmen preparing to replace older water pipes with a new copper one in Newark, N.J., in October.
Workmen preparing to replace older water pipes with a new copper one in Newark, N.J., in October.Read moreSeth Wenig / AP

Lead has been found in drinking-water faucets and fountains in 92% of the schools in Atlantic County that provided testing data to New Jersey, and that is “just the tip of the toxic iceberg” for schools throughout the state, according to an analysis released Wednesday by two environmental groups.

The analysis conducted by the nonprofits Environment New Jersey and the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality looked at lead testing data from 66 of the 72 schools in Atlantic County’s 25 school districts.

It drilled down in two districts for a deeper dive: Pleasantville and Galloway Township. Lead was detected in the water in about 45% of locations tested in both districts using the most recent publicly available data.

Annette Giaquinto, Galloway’s superintendent of schools, disputed that specific finding.

“The correct percentage is 4.4% (8 out of 180 tested) and of the 8,” she said in an email, those that tested positive “are either in areas not used for consumption or are in the process of being remediated.”

Giaquinto noted the district is currently testing for lead for the 2021-22 school year.

“I want to assure you that our district takes the health and well-being of our students and staff quite seriously,” Giaquinto wrote.

In a separate public statement sent by Giaquinto, she said the analysis used outdated information, calling it “click bait” and “copied from a report released back in 2017 and does not include any of the remediation measures taken by the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 statement continued: “To be perfectly clear, the District’s drinking water facilities available to, and used by, students and staff meet all health and safety standards.”

It further stated that “the purported press conference released information which the organizers had to know was either knowingly misleading or communicated with reckless disregard for the truth.”

The researchers said they used data submitted by the 66 school districts from testing between 2017 to 2022. The last time all districts completed comprehensive testing was in 2017, the researchers said, though some isolated testing has been carried out since then. Testing had been required every six years, but beginning this school year, testing is required every three years.

The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because it can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can accumulate in the body over time. It can be particularly harmful to children and can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. It is also more dangerous for pregnant people.

The groups included any level of lead detected in their analysis.

The same two nonprofits performed an analysis on Bergen County in 2019 because they felt it was a good representation of northern New Jersey. They found lead present in 55% of faucets in Bergen County schools.

This year, the groups chose Atlantic County, where about 43,000 students attend schools, as a representative South Jersey county system. Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called Atlantic “a Goldilocks county — not too big and not small, not too rural, not too suburban or urban.”

The groups found, for example, that Reeds Road School in Galloway Township showed lead present in 49 of its water sources — the most in either district.

As an example of high levels of lead that were reported, the analysis cited 695 parts per billion of the metal at Roland Rogers School in Galloway and 229 parts per billion at Washington Avenue School in Pleasantville.

Jerome Page, president of the Pleasantville school board, said: “It is clear with me that this issue has to be addressed. ... We have to continue to stay with it.”

» READ MORE: 98% of Philly schools tested in a new study had some lead-containing water; district disputes findings

Lead is present not just in New Jersey schools but also in many households. In all, 186,830 households in the state, or about 6% of all households, have recently been notified by their local water departments that a service line — the pipe that connects a water main in the street to a building — has been found to contain the metal.

» READ MORE: 186,000 N.J. households are about to learn there’s lead in their drinking water pipes

The notices are part of a new state law designed to force water systems to replace all lead service lines by 2031.

As for schools, the two nonprofits are advising that they:

  1. Replace all fountains with water bottle/hydration stations equipped with filters certified to remove lead.

  2. Install filters on any other taps used for drinking water, cooking, or beverage preparation.

  3. Close taps where tests have detected lead in the water.

  4. Replace lead service lines and lead-bearing fixtures or plumbing.

Willie Francois, president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, said during a news conference announcing the results that lead is a national issue for black churches and social justice.

“We cannot have the nation we deserve without the cities we deserve,” Francois said. “And we cannot have the cities we deserve without the schools we deserve. And we cannot have the schools we deserve if there are still issues of safety around drinking water.”

Julia Geskey, a clean-water associate with the Environment New Jersey Research and Policy Center and an author of the report, cited lead as a widespread issue facing many school districts, including Philadelphia.

“Unfortunately, today’s data is likely just the tip of the toxic iceberg when it comes to the threat of lead contamination in our schools’ drinking water,” Geskey said. “As long as there is lead in the plumbing or pipes. Any tap without a filter can ultimately be serving this lead wastewater to our kids.”