Get the Lead Out

Ensuring safe drinking water for our children at school
Released by: Environment Ohio Research and Policy Center

Our children need safe drinking water – especially at school where they go to learn and play each day.  Unfortunately, lead is contaminating drinking water at schools and pre-schools across the country.  As our report shows, states are failing to make the grade when it comes to keeping lead out of drinking water at school.  Instead of waiting for more testing, we need to proactively remove the lead pipes and plumbing at the root of this toxic hazard for our children.

Toxic threat across the country

Over the past five years, the tragedy of Flint, Michigan has stunned the nation. We watched the drinking water of an entire city become contaminated with lead. And, we know now that 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.1

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.

Key findings

Most states are failing to protect children from lead in schools’ drinking water.

  • 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. Because this prevention work will take time, schools can start by proactively installing filters certified to remove lead at every tap used for drinking or cooking. Schools should also immediately begin regular and proper testing of all water outlets used for drinking or cooking to ensure that the prevention steps being taken are effective, and promptly remove from service any 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, Wisconsin5 and Lansing, Michigan6 have removed all lead service lines from homes, and New York City has replaced them at schools. And Washington, D.C. now requires school to pro-actively install certified filters at all outlets used for drinking or cooking in schools.7

Recommendations

The science now makes clear that there is no safe level of lead exposure for our children. So, to ensure safe drinking water for our children, we need policies that are strong enough to “get the lead out” at schools and pre-schools.

States and communities should:

  • Proactively “get the lead out” of schools and child care centers by replacing fountains, faucets, and other parts containing lead;
  • Install and maintain filters certified to remove lead on every faucet or fountain used for cooking and drinking; 
  • Adopt a 1 part per billion (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; and
  • 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;
  • Provide major funding to help states and communities remove lead in water infrastructure — including lead service lines and plumbing/fixtures in schools; and
  • 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.

Sources

  1. Emma Brown, “A legal loophole might be exposing children to lead in the nation’s schools”, Washington Post, March 18th 2016 available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2016/03/18/a-legal-loop...
  2. Emma Brown, “A legal loophole might be exposing children to lead in the nation’s schools”, Washington Post, March 18th 2016 available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2016/03/18/a-legal-loop...
  3. United States EPA, “3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Centers,” October 2018. Available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-09/documents/final_revis...
  4. 4 Lead and Copper Rule: A Quick Reference Guide, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency available at https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=60001N8P.txt 
  5. Cheryl Corley, “Avoiding A Future Crisis, Madison Removed Lead Water Pipes 15 Years Ago,” National Public Radio available at https://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472567733/avoiding-a-future-crisis-madiso...
  6. Michael Gerstein, “Lansing Replaces City’s Final Lead Service Line”, The Detroit News, 14 December 2016 available at https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2016/12/14/lansing...
  7. Code of the District of Colombia § 38–825.01a. Prevention of lead in drinking water in schools. Available at https://code.dccouncil.us/dc/council/code/sections/38-825.01a.html