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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Schools Across the U.S. Find Elevated Lead Levels in Drinking Water

From The Wall Street Journal

By Kris Maher
September 5, 2018

‘Each school system is trying to find their own way’ to address lead contamination, usually caused by old plumbing.


Schools in multiple states are tearing out water fountains and old faucets after finding elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

Indiana tested 915 schools in recent months and found that 61% had one or more fixtures with elevated lead levels. Schools in Colorado and Florida, among others, are taking steps to address lead in drinking water.


Some testing is mandated by new state laws, as in Maryland. In Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, D.C., the district is midway through replacing 238 fixtures that had elevated lead.

There isn’t a national standard for what level of lead, measured in parts per billion or ppb, is acceptable in school drinking water specifically. Districts and states are struggling to find individual solutions.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires public water systems to take action to reduce lead when more than 10% of samples from homes exceed 15 ppb. Its voluntary guidance for schools, set in the 1990s, states that schools should take individual water fountains and other fixtures out of service if lead exceeds 20 ppb.


Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, helps carry
bottled water at Noble School Tuesday. PHOTO: PAUL SANCYA/A.P.

Schools face a balancing act because cutting lead to lower levels is costly. Indiana’s statewide testing cost $4.7 million, said a spokeswoman for the Indiana Finance Authority, which paid for the program using state and federal funds.

“We have chaos around the country,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. “Each school system is trying to find their own way.” Mr. Edwards, who helped uncover lead contamination in Flint, Mich., in 2015, sparking greater national awareness of the issue, called the voluntary EPA protocol “totally outdated.”

An EPA representative said the agency plans to update its guidance for public schools, possibly as early as this year.

Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body, and there is no safe level of lead in blood for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Last week, the Detroit public school system shut off water across the district, before its 47,000 students started school on Tuesday, after finding higher-than-expected levels of lead or copper at some schools. Officials said schools would pass out bottled water until new water coolers arrived.


"37% showed elevated lead in drinking water, as defined by the districts. 41% of school districts hadn’t tested for lead in the 12 months before completing the survey, and 16% said they didn’t know if they had tested."


In most cases, water problems are a result of old plumbing that contains lead, not municipal water supplies. Water that sits in school pipes over weekends or school breaks tends to have higher lead concentrations, experts say.

A July report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 43% of school districts it surveyed had tested for lead in 2016 or 2017. Of those, about 37% showed elevated lead in drinking water, as defined by the districts. About 41% of school districts hadn’t tested for lead in the 12 months before completing the survey, and 16% said they didn’t know if they had tested.

All school districts that detected elevated lead reported taking steps to reduce or eliminate the exposure, the report said, including by replacing water fountains, installing filters or new fixtures or providing bottled water.
In the past few weeks, Pueblo City Schools in Pueblo, Colo., concluded its first-ever water testing at its 31 schools. Of more than 580 water fountains and other fixtures tested, the district disabled or repaired 27 which had lead above 15 ppb, the EPA’s standard for public water systems.

“The majority of our schools are aging facilities,” said Dalton Sprouse, a spokesman for the district. Now that the district has its test results, he said, it can take further action if the EPA lowers its guidance for lead in water.

Indiana officials also chose a standard of 15 ppb lead and found that 8% of fixtures in schools statewide were above that level. In Warrick County, 11 of 17 schools had at least one fixture over the level.


Brad Schneider, superintendent for the Warrick County School Corp., said he immediately replaced the fixtures. “You can’t solve a problem when you don’t know you have a problem,” he said.

Laura Stewart, a parent and PTA leader in Silver Spring, Md., wants the Montgomery County Public Schools to follow Washington, D.C., and a handful of states to adopt a lead limit of 5 ppb in school drinking water.


Tests in the district, the state’s largest with 206 schools, found 238 of 13,248 fixtures had lead above the 20 ppb threshold. Ms. Stewart said several thousand were above 5 ppb. She wants schools to flush water lines more regularly and use filters to be get below the 5-ppb level.

“Everything is constrained by money,” said Ms. Stewart, 47, who has two school-age boys.

Derek Turner, a spokesman for the district, said it is working with state health officials to explore using a lower lead limit.

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