Stepinac’s Honors Academy Assesses Flint Water Crisis, Looks for Potential Lead Dangers in Westchester

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Students in Archbishop Stepinac High School’s Honors Academy program studied the water crisis in Flint, Mich., for the past year across four disciplines, engineering, health sciences, finance and law, and presented their findings to more than 150 guests at the Clean Water Solution Symposium at the school in White Plains May 30.

The students concluded their findings by looking at potential lead dangers in Westchester County and a municipal bond solution for paying to replace lead pipes.

Moderated by Mary Calvi, co-anchor of “CBS2 This Morning” and “CBS2 At Noon” on WCBS-TV and mother of two at Stepinac, the panel included discussion of the student findings by expert panelists: Anthony V. Capicotto ’83, P.E., a 31-year veteran engineer and consultant for municipal water systems; Morri E. Markowitz, M.D., director of lead poisoning prevention and treatment program, Department of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (University Hospital for Albert Einstein College of Medicine); Christopher L. Daly ’89, founder, CEO and president of Synergy Alternative Capital Management, a New York metro area investment firm and 22-year Wall Street veteran of leading investment firms; and Walter Schwartz, a practicing attorney in Ardsley, with more than 55 years of experience.

The finance student panel presenters, Steven Vukaj and Jonathan Alviar, showed that more than 21,000 homes in Westchester County built before 1939 potentially still have lead piping. They concluded, “The sum total of repairing lead piping would be in the vicinity of $212 million.” They also pointed to potential economic expansion, increasing jobs for plumbers, excavators, landscapers and inspectors.

One way to pay for non-lead piping, the students suggested, is municipal bonds. Expert panelist Daly commended the students on their thorough research and planning. Pointing to the challenge of getting investors interested in returns of 3 percent, he asked the students who they thought would be most likely to invest. The student panelists concluded that local investors would have more of a stake, since their concern for clean water would counterbalance the lower rate of return.

The engineering panelists, Patrick O’Mara, Ted Akuffo, Anthony Makaj and Nolan DeFreitas, presented the pros and cons of different filtering systems they created. Engineering expert Capicotto discussed how the student plans created concepts that were more economical than those that are used today and encouraged their further development.

Health care student panelists Peter Astriab, Michael Schwarz and Jiayan Liang looked at several ways to treat those with lead poisoning, especially children. Besides the obvious removal of the lead source, they described the pros and cons of chelation therapy, antioxidant therapy and calcium and iron supplements.

Dr. Markowitz, who has been treating children with lead poisoning for decades, said that through the years, the blood level numbers considered toxic have dropped. He also said that symptoms sometimes take long periods of time to manifest. “It’s a hierarchy of toxicity,” Dr. Markowitz said. “You don’t become aware of lead affecting your cells until many cells are affected.”

Students Thomas Silver and Ryan Howard presented background for both civil and criminal cases being brought against those in Flint. Attorney Schwartz created a dialogue with the student panelists and discussed which would be more difficult to prosecute, civil or criminal. “The criminal is much harder,” Schwartz concluded. “It is a matter of proving beyond the reasonable doubt.”

Frank Portanova, vice principal for curriculum and academic studies at Stepinac, said one of the primary goals of the Honors Academy when it was launched two years ago was for students to “see the relationship between their studies and their application to the real world.”

Portanova concluded that “by tackling the contaminated water crisis in Flint, which has gone missing in the national conversation, the students have undertaken a very relevant project.”

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