How to remain vigilant in the fight to provide safe drinking water in schools
In the fall of 2014, Americans across the country became aware of a public health issue many had never worried about before: lead in drinking water. Within a matter of weeks, the city of Flint, Michigan, had become the poster child for contaminated drinking water.
Since then, the public’s understanding of drinking water quality has grown, but too many school leaders and parents continue to be blind to the potential presence of lead-contaminated drinking water in our schools.
A recent national study conducted by 120Water reveals that while most parents of school-aged children understand the danger to their children of lead in drinking water, only about half know the last time their school drinking water was tested for lead. Even more surprising, a whopping 60% of school leaders said they would not participate in voluntary lead testing programs, or would only do so if the program was free.
Imagine the parental outrage if school leaders said they wouldn’t take precautions against COVID-19.
Yet, research shows that there are no safe levels of lead for children, and even small amounts of lead can be very harmful to them. Lead poisoning can result in damage to a child’s central and peripheral nervous systems, cause learning disabilities, and impair hearing, among other things.
No reason to wait to test drinking water
Lead gets into drinking water in one of two ways: either through lead service lines that bring the water into the building or through lead plumbing hardware, including faucets. While newer buildings were constructed after the Safe Drinking Water Act set new plumbing standards in 2014, the average public school building was approximately 44 years old as of 2017 (Edweek, 2017), which means that most were built before Congress passed any lead regulation for plumbing products.
Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, which deals with lead in drinking water. These are the first significant changes to the rule since it was introduced in 1991, and will require the first federal mandate for school lead testing.
Under the new revisions, utilities will be required to sample 20% of public and private elementary schools and 20% of all childcare facilities in their service area each year. In addition, any non-elementary school can request sampling during that time and the system is required to comply.
Each system will also be required to provide results to the facility, state agencies, and local health departments.
Environmental justice and equity concerns
While these new revisions won’t likely take effect until 2024, there’s no reason for schools to wait to test their drinking water for lead. Local school leaders and elected officials can join voluntary programs if one is available in their state or area. If no such program exists, they can perform their own sampling.
Federal funding for lead testing in schools is available through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act and is available to all 50 states and US territories through non-competitive grant applications. While the grant funding will not cover remediation, the current infrastructure bill earmarks $9 billion to pay for lead remediation, including replacing fixtures with filtered bottle filling stations.
This money, however, won’t likely be available for a couple of years, raising environmental justice and equity concerns, as many facilities in low-income areas may not have the ability to both test and remediate.
Regardless, local school leaders and elected officials must stay vigilant in the fight to protect the health of our nation’s children. This includes working with water systems to discover funding opportunities for both testing and remediation.
The future of our nation resides with our younger generations, and this starts by providing children in all demographic areas access to clean, safe drinking water.
Megan Glover is a mom to two school-aged children and CEO of 120Water, which works with communities to remove lead from drinking water.