Sustainable Success at McNair Academic High School!

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Guest Blogger - Harshal Agrawal, Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School Senior and Local Activist

I am a senior at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School here in Jersey City interested in making change at the intersection of environmental engineering and public policy. Back in September, I petitioned the Jersey City Board Of Education (JCBOE) to install lead filters on water fountains in public schools citywide. Similar to a lot of kids in our city, I have been attending Jersey City Public Schools (JCPS) ever since 1st grade and at most schools in our city, all water fountains have been shut off for drinking use due to lead contamination from old, lead-soldered pipes. Unfortunately, a lot of students are taught from an early age in JCPS to not drink from the water fountains.

Elkay water fountains at McNair high school that have been turned off indefinitely until the water becomes potable again.

Elkay water fountains at McNair high school that have been turned off indefinitely until the water becomes potable again.

One day last year after soccer practice, I needed water, but the school had once again run out. The frustration I felt at this moment ultimately motivated me to find a solution. After some preliminary research, I found that due to state regulations, JCBOE was required to shut off all fountains where they found unsafe levels of lead and either provide alternative water sources to students or fix the pipes. Opting for the former, JCBOE put water coolers in each of these schools and according to publicly available board docs, currently ships in 5 gallon water jug replacements from a company in Birdsboro, PA (over 110 miles away) at $3.75 per bottle [1]. Almost the entire school district of more than 30,000 students and approximately 40 schools relies on this bottled water for daily consumption.

Plastic trash at McNair High School Water Cooler.

Plastic trash at McNair High School Water Cooler.

These water coolers are neither environmentally nor economically sustainable. Trash cans throughout schools citywide are filled to the brim with single-use, non-recycled plastic cups. Gallons of fuel are consumed annually for the transportation of water jug replacements. Students tend to bring plastic bottled water to school because they are not allowed to refill their water bottles, thus producing more non-recycled plastic garbage. Worst of all, schools often simply run out of water jug replacements and students have to spend the entire day without drinking water as I had to after my soccer practice that day. It's very hard for students to focus in class on such days without having any water to rehydrate, especially after coming back from phys ed. Lastly, instructional time is often wasted on such days when water is running low as "search parties" of students navigate the halls, going from floor to floor in search of non-empty water coolers.  

When I started brainstorming solutions, I knew that replacing all the lead-soldered water pipes was not a feasible option. I did some research and instead, found commercially available water filters that can be installed on existing water fountains to bring lead within safe-to-consume levels. Elkay, the company that manufactured most of the old, currently installed water fountains in our school district, makes these compatible filters.

Using McNair HS as case study, JCBOE sanctioned a water testing at the school which found that the lead levels at many of the water fountains throughout McNair HS are not drastically higher than EPA acceptable levels (<15 ppb) [2]. By attaching lead water filters to these fountains, it is very likely that their lead levels will be brought to within safe drinking levels. Once installed, these filters, which cost $80, last for up to two years and require little to no maintenance [3]. In the long run, these filters provide a cheaper and greener alternative to constantly refilling water coolers with replacement jugs.

Lead water filter on City Hall’s Water Cooler.

Lead water filter on City Hall’s Water Cooler.

In September, I made an online petition addressed to the JCBOE to conduct a pilot study of these filters at McNair HS. I got the online endorsement of local parent groups such as Jersey City Together and  Civic Parent. With the help of these partnerships, I spoke at a McNair PTA meeting, BOE meeting, and Citywide Student Council meetings to get 800+ signatures on my petition to install and test lead-filters at the water fountains. As a result of this successful petition, I had the opportunity of meeting with  JCPS administrators to get a pilot study of these filters initially approved at McNair. Since then, I have acquired final approval for the pilot study from the district’s independent water contractor, Tectonics. Just recently, the purchase orders for the filters and pre/post water testing were passed by the JCBOE and now it’s just a matter of district plumbers coming to McNair and installing these filters.

While my petition has so far been successful to enact change at McNair, please still consider signing it here to show JCBOE how big of a problem this is at all our schools. I am currently working on creating a coalition of parents, students, and teachers citywide to continue this water-advocacy after I graduate and install more of these filters at other schools in the city. Many thanks to Sustainable Jersey City for letting me tell my story here and for promising to continue advocating for clean water once I’ve graduated. If you have any questions or would like to support me, please email me at or visit my website at




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