Is There Lead in Your School's Water?
Has your school tested its water for lead? How you can find out in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
Water fountains are a common source of lead in schools.
You might have encouraged your kids to drink plenty of water this summer, since hydration has become such an important health recommendation. But once they return to school, how do you know if the water that comes from the fountain is safe? How do you know if it has even been tested?
Since the 2015 discovery of lead in drinking water in Flint, MI, the safety of the water our children get while at school, from drinking fountains to taps used in food preparation, has come under more scrutiny. Locally, Central Bucks School District in Bucks County, PA notified parents this month that 16 water sources in its schools showed lead levels above recommended levels and it is working to have them replaced or removed before school starts.
The biggest culprit of unsafe water in schools is lead that leaches from old or rusted pipes. Lead — which can cause health issues from attention deficits to lower IQ’s — can enter drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode. While newer schools, built in the ‘80s or later, may be less likely to have lead, that’s not a guarantee.
“Any school that’s on municipal water can generally rest assured that most other contaminants have been dealt with by the town or city,” says Stephanie Wein, clean water and conservation advocate for the Penn Environment Research and Policy Center. “But lead is different because it needs to be dealt with at the building level.”
The health dangers from lead
For children, the consequences of lead don’t show up immediately, so it can continue to build in their systems unnoticed. Long-term health issues include an inability to pay attention, lower IQ, hearing problems and anemia, says Jonathan Miller, medical director for value-based care at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. High levels of lead can cause acute symptoms that include belly pain, irritability and, in severe cases, seizures or even death.
“Most children with lead will have no acute symptoms, especially at the low levels,” says Miller. “Short-term symptoms, like belly pain and irritability, are reversible with acute treatment of lead intoxication, but once a child has been exposed, the long-term consequences — lower IQ and attention deficits — are not reversible.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends universal screening for lead (through a blood test) for all children at age one and even younger for children at high risk of lead exposure. Those children are screened again at two years old.
“It’s ironic that kids could be getting brain damage in the very place they go to learn and grow,” says Wein. “They are our most vulnerable population and it is easy to test the water and solve the problem.”
Current test requirements
Despite the health consequences of lead found in the drinking water, there is a lack of both testing and reporting. As of last year, only 10 states, including New Jersey, require water tests in schools. Pennsylvania is among 17 states with voluntary programs. If a Pennsylvania school chooses not to test for lead, it must discuss lead issues in school facilities at a public meeting once a year.
Delaware state law does not require schools served by a community water system to test drinking water for lead. If a school is supplied water through its own wells, then it is required to test for lead. Water fountains are not specifically required, but may be included in the testing.
In 2018, the Government Accountability Office reported that of all the US public schools that reported test results, more than a third found elevated levels of lead in the previous two years. But only 43 percent of all schools had even checked for lead in their water.
Get the lead out
That lack of reporting earned Pennsylvania an F and New Jersey a C minus in the Get the Lead Out report by Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. (Delaware was not part of the report.) “The grade is not for the amount of lead in the water, it’s about the policies,” says Wein. “On a national level there are no federal standards for lead in drinking water in schools.”
The Center is calling for the three T’s: test, treat and tell. “Test the water for lead presence, treat to bring the level of lead down and tell by disclosing to parents and the community what has been found and what’s being done about it,” Wein says.
In 2016, all New Jersey school districts were required to test water outlets, including drinking fountains and taps used in food preparation, and post the results on the district’s website, says Chris Sturm, managing director of water and policy for New Jersey Future. If lead was found, they were to send the report to the Department of Education.
Not every district complied, but of the results available, lead was found in school drinking water across the state in rural, suburban and urban school districts.
“There seemed to be a pattern of more instances in large, older districts and we found that over 300 schools had at least one outlet testing positive,” Sturm says. “It seems districts were doing a good job of posting results online, describing efforts they took to take those outlets out of use.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood, though Pennsylvania schools are only required to report levels of lead in water above 15 parts per billion. The EPA and CDC recommend states and communities replace fountains, faucets and other plumbing that contains lead and keep lead levels below 1 part per billion for school drinking water.
The groups also recommend the federal government enforce and strengthen federal rules to protect drinking water from lead and provide money to help states and communities remove sources of lead.
What parents can do
To find out if your school has been tested for lead in the city of Philadelphia, go to the school district’s website, Philasd.org. The results of the test and any follow-up actions are listed there, says Wein. In the suburbs, parents can ask their school district, but if they don’t get a satisfactory answer, they can file a Freedom of Information request.
In NJ, parents can go to their school district’s website, where the report is required to be posted. If the school hasn’t done testing, parents should insist on having it done, says Sturm. In last November’s election, the Securing our Children’s Future Fund Act bond referendum approved $500 million, of which $100 million is dedicated to water infrastructure improvements in school district buildings. How and where that money will be spent is under consideration.
In Delaware, parents should contact the school directly, says Keith Mensch, director of the DPH Office of Drinking Water. “Parents or any members of the public who has concerns or wants to know the risk of lead in drinking water should review the water system’s annual Consumer Confidence Report, which will include lead testing information and results,” says Mensch. “Parents who may be concerned about the risk of lead in the school’s drinking water can approach the school about testing.”
If parents have concerns because their school has not tested its water, in the short-term, they can send their children to school with water from home. Another solution, though less immediate, is for parents to help raise funds for filtered drinking fountains or water refilling stations. Similar to those seen at airports and other public places, they are certified lead free and allow students to use their own water bottles. (UPDATE: U.S. PIRG and the Environment America released a toolkit in September 2019 for parents who want to encourage their schools to conduct water tests.)
“We know our schools want to do their best by our kids,” says Wein, “That’s why we need state policy, so schools have clear expectations, so they know they’re doing what’s best for students, and so they can show they’re testing and complying.
“Parents should ask their state representative to support more comprehensive legislation that will give best practices to schools for a critical long-term fix.”
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.