N.J. Parents Sue Over Lead in School Water

     TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — On the same day that Gov. Chris Christie ordered mandatory lead testing for all New Jersey schools, the parents of four students filed a class-action lawsuit against state officials, claiming they knowingly exposed Newark school children to dangerous lead levels since 2011.
     The lawsuit, filed May 2 in New Jersey Federal Court, claims school officials “haphazardly and secretively” installed water filters at certain schools to filter lead from drinking water but failed to consistently change the filters every six months, thereby potentially exposing students to toxic lead levels.
     For example, as of March of this year, several filters at school water fountains had not been changed more than five years after they had expired, according to the lawsuit.
     “Changing a filter takes less than five minutes,” and state officials “deliberately ensured that a five-minute task completed twice a year to prevent the poisoning of our children and teachers was not done,” the complaint states. “The result was that thousands of our children were poisoned with lead.”
     Not only were the water fountains at risk, but food prepared in Newark school cafeterias also relied on the potentially poisoned water, the parents claim.
     The plaintiffs — Veronica Branch, Gwendolyn Booker, and Anthony Brown — filed the lawsuit on behalf of their children. Among the defendants are the current and former superintendents of Newark’s school district, the executive managing director of operations for Newark schools, and all 10 members of New Jersey’s board of education.
     Gov. Christie, himself a named defendant in the suit, ordered that $10 million be allocated for lead testing after months of furor over toxic lead levels that were found in public water in Flint, Mich.
     “People need information so that they can feel safe,” Christie said at a Monday news conference.
     However, earlier this year Christie questioned the idea of “testing every faucet” in the districts, saying it might be too costly. Many of Newark’s old pipes are lead-lined, which is likely the cause of the problem.
     After the discovery in March of dangerous lead levels in Newark public schools, state officials offered voluntary blood testing for students.
     But Monday’s lawsuit claims Christie and other state officials made it purposely difficult for parents to have their children tested for lead poisoning.
     “[R]ather than have testing at the affected school, the defendants set up test sites at locations far from the affected schools in order to make it as inconvenient as possible to have our children tested for lead,” the lawsuit alleges.
     Lead consumption by children at any level is considered unsafe, and lead poisoning can lead to cognitive issues, gastrointestinal problems, and other health concerns.
     In March, testing by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection revealed that 30 of Newark’s 67 schools had dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water. The water was shut off at those schools, and soon after eight more schools were found to have dangerous lead levels, according to local news reports.
     Lead in drinking water has been an issue elsewhere in the state, particularly in formerly industrial areas. Students in Camden school districts have been drinking bottled water since 2002 due to the prohibitive cost of replacing lead piping in the aging schools.
     The state attorney general’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit.
     A spokeswoman for the Newark school district said “the health and safety of our students and staff is our highest priority.”
     The class-action lawsuit seeks monetary damages, as well as the establishment of a medical monitor to oversee water operations at Newark schools.

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