When experts said last year that New York City’s method of testing water in public schools for lead could hide dangerously high levels of the metal, officials at first dismissed the concerns. They insisted that the city’s practice of running the water for two hours the night before taking samples would not distort results.
Still, the city changed its protocol, and the results from a new round of tests indicate that the experts were right.
So far, the latest tests have found nine times as many water outlets — kitchen sinks, water fountains, classroom faucets or other sources — with lead levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion as last year’s tests found, according to a report released by the state health department last week.
And in some schools where the earlier tests detected problems, the lead levels identified by the new tests were much worse.
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At Intermediate School 27, the Anning S. Prall School, on Staten Island, a first round of tests, conducted in April 2016 after the water had been allowed to run, a practice known as pre-stagnation flushing, found six outlets with lead levels above the E.P.A. threshold. The highest level was found in water from a classroom faucet, where the lead concentration was 49 parts per billion.
When the school’s water was retested in December without letting the water run, 53 outlets had lead levels above the E.P.A. threshold. Fourteen had levels over 1,000 parts per billion, including a fountain with a lead concentration of 3,680 parts per billion, and a classroom faucet with a lead level of 32,500 parts per billion.
The results from the new tests were first reported by The Staten Island Advance.
At Public School 124, the Silas B. Dutcher School, in Brooklyn, testing done last March found no outlets with levels above the E.P.A. threshold. The tests in December found eight outlets with lead levels above the E.P.A. threshold, including a fountain with a level of 276 parts per billion.
At the Bronx High School of Science, water from one fountain just barely exceeded the E.P.A. threshold in the first round of testing.
Tests at the school last month found 13 outlets with levels over the threshold. A sample from one fountain had a lead concentration of 1,590 parts per billion, while a faucet in an office had a lead concentration of 7,480 parts per billion.
“This result illustrates how pre-stagnation flushing can mask serious lead in water problems in schools,” Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who helped uncover elevated lead levels in the water in Flint, Mich., said in an email. “I applaud their retesting in a manner that better reveals the widespread scope of the contamination and health concern.”
Although no level of exposure to lead is considered safe, Professor Edwards said that any tap providing water with a lead level of more than 400 parts per billion represented “an acute health risk” to young children.
Water absorbs lead when it sits stagnant in pipes for long periods of time. For that reason the E.P.A. recommends that schools testing for lead take samples after water has been sitting in pipes for at least eight hours.
In 2016, amid the water crisis in Flint, New York moved to test the water in its more than 1,500 school buildings. Older buildings often have pipes and fixtures that contain lead, and young children are particularly at risk from exposure to lead, which can harm the developing brain.
Under the protocol the city used for the initial tests, workers went into schools at night, turned on all outlets and let the water run for two hours. The outlets were then turned off, and the water sat in pipes overnight for eight hours before samples were taken. The E.P.A.’s guidelines for schools do not address this practice, but experts say it temporarily reduces lead levels because it cleans the inside of pipes of soluble lead.
After finishing the tests, the city announced that only 1 percent of the outlets in schools had been found to have lead concentrations above the E.P.A. action level, that those outlets had been removed and that the water was safe.
In September, after The New York Times reported on the city’s flushing practice, citing experts who said it could distort the test results, officials said the city would adjust its protocol and avoid pre-stagnation flushing in most cases.
In December, after the state health department issued regulations that discouraged pre-stagnation flushing, the city said it would retest all school buildings “out of an abundance of caution” under a new protocol that did not include flushing.
So far, the city has retested the water in around a third of school buildings. While it has declined to publicly release the full results until all testing is completed in the next few weeks, it has communicated some results to the state health department, which summarized some of that data last week. And schools where tests have found lead levels over the E.P.A. threshold have sent letters home notifying parents about the results.
The Education Department said that, as the city gets results, any outlet used for drinking or cooking where the water is found to have lead concentrations above the E.P.A. action level were being turned off until they could replaced. And any school where tests have found an outlet with water over the action level is supposed to have its drinking water outlets and kitchen faucets flushed for at least 10 minutes by a custodian every Monday morning.
“What the tests show continues to be that, overall, our water is safe,” Elizabeth Rose, the Education Department’s deputy chancellor for operations, said in an interview. “Any fixture where we had a positive test for lead we are addressing and remediating that fixture so that we remove the potential for absorption of lead by the water when it sits stagnant overnight.”
Asked if the new results validated experts’ concerns about the city’s original method of testing, Ms. Rose said, “We absolutely stand by all of our testing and testing results.”
Lead poisoning among children in New York City has declined significantly since 2005, and no cases of lead poisoning have been traced to schools.
The city said that its testing last year cost $13 million. This year it is expected to cost from $15 million to $20 million.