As federal health officials confirmed on Friday that kids in Flint, Michigan had been poisoned following the contamination of the city’s water, an investigation has found that New York City failed to ensure water at day care centers were properly tested for lead.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced Friday that according to a recent audit of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) — which is responsible of overseeing about 2,300 Group Child/Day Care centers citywide — failed to ensure that childcare providers tested their water for lead.
The Bureau of Child Care (BCC), a division of DOHMH, is responsible for monitoring providers in the city. A group day care center is classified at offering services to three or more children under 6 years old for five or more hours per week, and more than 30 days in a 12-month period.
One of the largest findings investigators found was that DOHMH officials had ordered staff to enter false information into the agency’s database to show that a lead test had been completed at a particular center, even when it wasn’t true.
“The health of our children is non-negotiable,” Stringer said. “The fact that the Department of Health directed its employees to enter false information in an official database is a blatant violation of public trust. It should not take an audit to ensure that a City agency is doing its job to protect our kids.”
The results of the audit come the same day as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that children who drank water in Flint, Michigan — which suffered from contaminated water after switching water supply — had a 50 percent higher risk of dangerously elevated blood lead levels, according to NBC News.
In 2008, New York City began requiring water lead tests to be completed at all daycare centers. Three years later, the DOHMH’s computerized database was changed to only issue permits when proof of a lead test was present.
The audit reviewed permits issued to daycare centers from August 29, 2012, through August 29, 2014, and examined a sample of 119 providers.
Some of the findings of the audit included finding out that the agency failed to fully enforce water lead test requirements, even after over 10 percent of daycare centers showed positive results. Out of the 119 day care centers examined, investigators found that tests had been done at only 49 of the sites — of which five had unacceptable levels of lead.
Auditors also discovered that the BCC directed staff in an email to report that tests had showed positive result at 70 centers, even after no reports had been done. Through the false recording, the agency bypassed the system to issue permits to centers.
The audit also uncovered that when asked to explain how centers were allowed to open even without proper lead test evidence, DOHMH “offered unsatisfactory answers.” In one cause the agency claimed that the practice of entering false information on tests ended in 2012, although auditors found the practice had not changed within the 2012 and 2014 period.
Also agency officials told investigators that the only time a day care provider would be required to be re-tested would be in a case that a child was tested for elevated levels of lead in his or her blood.
In response to the comptroller’s audit, the DOHMH announced that it reviewed the 70 child care centers with missing results and found that 61 are compliant with water lead test protocol. The other nine centers have since closed.
The agency also said that it had reviewed its database to make sure that lead tests were done at all sites and discovered that 95 percent of the 2,300 daycare sites did not show elevated lead levels and the remaining five percent are being corrected.
“The outcome of this audit provides a critical reminder of why we need checks and balances in City government,” Stringer said. “Now that the audit is complete, DOH has confirmed that water lead tests have been completed at more than 95% of daycare centers. That’s a victory for every concerned parent in New York City.”
A spokesman from the mayor's office described the audit's claim as a “blatant mischaracterization,” and said that no children were harmed by the water.
“Although a bureaucratic process made testing standards vague beginning 2011, to date, the Comptroller’s report notes no child was ever harmed in large part due to the overwhelming rarity of lead-in-water illness,“ Aja Worthy-Davis, the mayor's deputy press secretary. ”Under this administration in June, the Health Department moved to link testing to the permitting process to help protect kids. It is a blatant mischaracterization to claim the agency systematically falsified documents based on a single email from 2011.”