Lead fears turn spotlight on underfunded school facilities

Since the Flint water crisis, several large urban districts nationwide also have reported elevated lead levels
By: | May 13, 2016

Fears of lead-tainted water in U.S. schools surged this year at the same time a report found the nation spends $46 billion less on annual school construction and maintenance than is necessary to ensure safe and healthy facilities.

The federal government contributes about 10 percent to districts’ annual operating budgets, but almost nothing to school construction or maintenance, according to the “2016 State of Our Schools: America’s K12 Facilities” report from the 21st Century School Fund, an organization that advocates modernizing school facilities.

While five states pay for nearly all their districts’ capital costs, 12 states provide no direct funding for construction. In the remaining 33 states, levels of state support vary widely.

“This is an equity issue” says Rachel Gutter, co-author of the report and director of the Center for Green Schools, part of the U.S. Green Building Council that aims to make schools more environmentally friendly. “Unless we make some disruptions in the way we operate, students from the poorest communities are going to continue to be the students who attend the poorest quality school facilities.”

Several studies have linked bad ventilation with lower average daily attendance and slower speed in completing tasks, the report notes. Studies also have found that rundown facilities are strongly associated with student truancy and higher rates of suspensions.

Michigan is among the states that do not contribute to school construction. Crumbling classrooms and lead-tainted water in Detroit and Flint schools exemplify the problem, Gutter says.

Lead problems

Since the Flint water crisis erupted in September, several large urban districts nationwide also have reported elevated lead levels in school buildings. Most schools are not legally required to test for lead, though the public water systems they tap must do so periodically.

But much of the contamination happens inside schools, where aging lead plumbing systems crack and release toxins in the water.

Many districts chose not to test for lead, sometimes for fear of not having funding to fix any problems found, says Marc Edwards, professor at Virginia Tech’s Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“It’s becoming a much greater risk with time” says Edwards, who helped uncover the Flint water crisis. “The fact that it’s not legally required [for a school to test for lead] doesn’t reduce the harm that’s done to children from exposure.”

In New Jersey’s Newark Public Schools, a lab detected high lead levels in 30 buildings in March. “We are currently retesting the sampling of all the water in our school buildings” says Dreena Whitfield, spokesperson for Newark Public Schools. The district also offered free blood screenings for students in those 30 schools.

The pieces of lead solder from pipes that fall off into a single glass of water can be equivalent to eating five to 10 lead paint chips, Edwards says. The effects of lead poisoning include antisocial behavior, difficulties in learning and delinquency—”all the things that are a school administrator’s worst nightmare” Edwards says.

Finding solutions

Though administrators cannot fix past exposure to lead or other water toxins, they can prevent it for future students with the following tips:

Consult the EPA’s “3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools” manual (available at www.epa.gov) and consult a local lab for testing—especially if the school was built before 1986.

Test more than once. Testing one sample from different water sources may be ineffective, because the lead levels at any fountain or tap can vary greatly as soldering breaks loose in lead plumbing.

Install filters on water fountains and taps, and designate those as “safe fill stations.” Label taps that do not have filters “for hand washing only.” This option is less expensive than a comprehensive lead test, Edwards says.

Show the public new plumbing systems and other maintenance projects that you need help funding. “The taxpayers are going to influence whether or not we change the way schools are funded” Gutter says. “Right now, this is completely off the average individual’s radar.”