City schools want to test for lead poisoning

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

A Buffalo Public Schools official says that the district wants to respond to the city’s serious lead poisoning problem with a sense of urgency. But a district proposal to test children for lead in schools is not getting support from the Erie County Health Department.

“It just seems it would be so easy to test the untested children,” said Will Keresztes, the school district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement.

“Why can’t that happen when the school district is so interested in making that happen?”

This was just one of many policies and best practices discussed at a roundtable Thursday morning at Tifft Nature Preserve. The event was Assemblyman Sean Ryan’s second roundtable on lead poisoning; the first event was in Rochester.

Listen to my podcast with Assemblyman Ryan about his first roundtable. 

Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said that testing children for lead is better left to primary care practices, but she didn’t elaborate on why she doesn’t support the school district’s proposal.

Burstein also reiterated her belief that the chief cause of lead exposure to children is lead paint in homes built before 1978 and not the drinking water supply. While that may be true due to Buffalo’s old housing stock, the school district did find high amounts of lead in drinking water at schools in October.

The school district released the results of testing water for lead at all 63 school buildings, which showed 308 outlets had levels above the EPA’s action limit, including 18 fountains and 33 faucets typically used for consumption or food preparation.

County health officials refuse to mandate the testing of drinking water for lead in homes where a child is already diagnosed with a high blood-lead level. Burstein has said she would only consider such testing if she were presented with evidence that tap water was becoming an identified source of lead poisoning.

National expert Marc Edwards, who is a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech University, called the health commissioner’s reasoning “narrow minded.”