Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center
Over the past two years, the tragedy of Flint, Michigan has stunned the nation. We watched the drinking water of an entire city become contaminated with lead. And now we know this toxic threat extends well beyond Flint to communities across the country. In fact, test results now show that lead is even contaminating drinking water in schools and pre-schools — flowing from thousands of fountains and faucets where our kids drink water every day.
In all likelihood, the confirmed cases of lead in schools’ water are just the tip of the iceberg. Most schools have at least some lead in their pipes, plumbing, or fixtures. And where there is lead, there is risk of contamination.
The health threat of lead in schools’ water deserves immediate attention from state and local policymakers for two reasons. First, lead is highly toxic and especially damaging to children — impairing how they learn, grow, and behave. So, we ought to be particularly vigilant against this health threat at schools and pre-schools, where our children spend their days learning and playing.
Second, current regulations are too weak to protect our children from lead-laden water at school. Federal rules only apply to the roughly ten percent of schools and pre-schools that provide their own water. Moreover, these rules only require remediation when testing confirms lead concentrations in excess of 15 parts per billion, even though medical and public health experts are unanimous that there is no safe level of lead for our children. The error of this approach is compounded by the fact that testing, even when properly done, often fails to detect maximum lead levels in water coming out of the tap.
Unfortunately, so far most states are failing to protect children from lead in schools’ drinking water. Our review of 16 states’ laws and regulations finds:
- Several states have no requirements for schools and pre-schools to address the threat of lead in drinking water; and
- Of the few states with applicable laws, most follow flaws in the federal rules — relying on testing instead of prevention, and using standards that allow health-threatening levels of lead to persist in our children’s water at school.
More specifically, when assessed in terms of protecting children from lead in water at school, these states’ policies earned the following grades:
Given the high toxicity of lead to children, the most health-protective policy is simply to “get the lead out” of our schools and pre-schools. This involves proactively removing lead-bearing parts from schools’ drinking water systems — from service lines to faucets and fixtures — and installing filters certified to remove lead at every tap used for drinking or cooking. Because all this prevention work will take time to complete, schools should also immediately begin regular and proper testing of all water outlets used for drinking or cooking and promptly remove from service those outlets where lead is detected. And schools should provide the public with easy access to all testing data and the status of remediation plans.
The promise and viability of this “get the lead out” approach can be seen in municipal and voluntary programs across the country. Madison, Wisconsin and Lansing, Michigan have removed all lead service lines from homes, and New York City has replaced them at schools. Seattle has adopted a somewhat more protective standard for lead in water. And Washington, D.C. is considering an ordinance that would not only set the standard for lead at one part per billion for schools but also require installing certified filters at all outlets used for drinking or cooking in schools.
The science now makes clear that there is no safe level of lead exposure for our children. To ensure safe drinking water for our children, we need policies that will “get the lead out” at school and pre-school.
States and communities should:
- Proactively “get the lead out” of schools and early childhood programs by removing lead service lines, lead-bearing plumbing, fixtures, etc.
- Install and maintain filters certified to remove lead on taps and fountains used for cooking and drinking
- Adopt a 1 ppb standard for lead in schools’ drinking water, consistent with recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Require testing at all water outlets used for drinking or cooking at all schools annually, using protocols designed to capture worst-case lead exposure for children
- Immediately remove from service any faucet or fountain used for drinking or cooking where testing indicates lead in the water
- Disclose all available information about lead in water infrastructure, test results, and remediation plans/progress both onsite and online
- Provide funding to remove lead in schools’ water infrastructure
The federal government should:
- Enforce and strengthen federal rules to protect drinking water from lead – e.g. the Lead and Copper Rule
- Propose major funding to help states and communities remove lead in water infrastructure — including lead service lines and plumbing/fixtures in schools
- Marshal the authority of all relevant federal agencies to protect public health from contamination of drinking water
And of course, we should fully protect all sources of drinking water from pollution.