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What to Do if Your School Has Lead

So your school system found lead in its drinking water fountains...now what?

Over 100 schools in Detroit started the school year off without water when initial tests—conducted in response to the 2014 Flint Water Crisis—indicated that two-thirds of schools had elevated lead concentrations in their water. Although lead is monitored throughout the distribution network by the water system provider, schools that rely on municipal water supplies aren’t specifically tested for the presence of lead at their outlets. Therefore, lead can (and frequently does) leach into drinking water supplies from service connections, meter valves, fittings, solder, sediment, and a variety of other sources.

Sadly, Detroit is not alone. Maryland found that nearly half of elementary schools in the state’s largest school district had unsafe levels of lead. Portland, Oregon found that 99% of public schools that had been tested to have elevated lead levels. And Indiana, which tested over 900 schools across the state, found that 60% of schools contained unsafe lead levels.

What’s scarier is that we still don’t know how widespread this problem is. In July 2018, the governmental accountability office (GAO) released a report identifying that 57% of public schools don’t know whether there is lead in their drinking water. In response, many states are rolling out lead testing programs, with the EPA offering $20 million to support lead testing initiatives in schools (and daycares). Although knowing is half the battle, what happens if your school tests positive for lead? According to the CDC, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, so it is critical to take immediate action.

What to Do about Lead – for Parents

If you’re a parent, it’s important to have a discussion with your child about the hazards associated with lead, instructing them to not use drinking fountains that have been identified as unsafe. Lead is invisible when dissolved in water and—even extremely at low concentrations—has been linked to behavioral issues and lower IQs.

So that your child can still stay hydrated, provide them with a reusable water container that they can fill up at home and bring to school each day. These bottles should be made of food-grade safe materials that are BPA-free. As your kids will now be drinking water from home, you’ll need to be sure that your home drinking water is free of lead (as well as other contaminants), which you can verify through home testing.

If you’ve identified lead in your home’s water, there are fortunately a variety of home filters that can remove lead. Examples include specialized carbon filters (see Brita Longlast or any ZeroWater product) and reverse osmosis systems (see Aquasana OptimH2O or iSpring RCC7).

What to Do about Lead – for School Administrators

If you’re a school administrator—just like for parents to their children—communication is key. When lead is found coming from at a specific faucet, that the faucet is unsafe. There are a few immediate actions you should take:

  • If you are able, shut off the water to the faucet to prevent people from drinking from it.
  • Wrapping the faucet with plastic and providing clear signage telling people not to drink the water.

Next, you will want to communicate the results of the lead testing to both faculty and parents, describing not only the methods for evaluating the presence of lead at your school, but also what actions the school is taking to fix the issue.

Short-Term Response

In the short-term, you need to provide lead-free alternatives for drinking water. To ensure at least one lead-free water source, it may be worthwhile to install water treatment at the point of use for a central outlet, such as the cafeteria (see Culligan US-EZ-4 or iSpring WGB32B-PB) . The school can use this treated water source to fill up water dispensers that can then be placed throughout the school  with complimentary cups. As these treatment products are typically intended to serve one household, as opposed to an entire school, it is a critical to monitor how much water has been treated by the product and to modify the filter replacement frequency accordingly.

If immediate treatment is not feasible, another short-term fix is to purchase water, either in the form of water cooler jugs or bottled water. Similar to the water dispensers, water coolers and cups can be distributed throughout campus. Single-use bottled water should be considered a last resort as this option rapidly becomes expensive, a recycling nightmare, and a significant environmental cost.

Long-Term Response

In the long-term, schools should conduct further testing to evaluate the extent of the lead contamination throughout the school. Ideally, schools should identify the source(s) of lead. Increasing your understanding of the problem will help your school make cost-effective decisions towards a solution. Remedies can take a wide range of forms, from replacing fixtures to installing drinking water stations. As always, communication with faculty and parents throughout this entire process is critical for re-instilling people’s confidence in their water.

 

Article Sources
  1. 100 schools in Detroit had to shut off their water: https://www.npr.org/2018/08/30/643247780/detroits-public-school-district-shuts-off-drinking-water-citing-lead-copper-risk
  2. Lead sources in school drinking water
    https://www.familiesagainstchemicaltoxins.org/how-to-protect-children-from-lead-in-water/
  3. Maryland:https://wtop.com/montgomery-county/2018/06/drinking-water-exceeds-lead-limits-at-63-montgomery-co-schools/
  4. Portland OR: https://www.kgw.com/article/news/health/99-of-portland-schools-have-high-lead-levels/283-268102018
  5. Indiana:https://www.apnews.com/352fdf2232a34788b69fd8208c2330b5
  6. GAO Report on testing https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/692979.pdf
  7. EPA $20 million lead testing support fund https://www.epa.gov/dwcapacity/wiin-grant-lead-testing-school-and-child-care-program-drinking-water
  8. CDC - no safe levels of lead https://ephtracking.cdc.gov/showChildhoodLeadPoisoning.action
  9. Health effects of lead in children https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/lead-poisoning.html
  10. Water containers that made of food-grade materials and are BPA-free https://alphamom.com/parenting/parenting-products-services/best-water-bottles/
  11. Home testing options https://www.popsci.com/how-to-test-lead-water#page-4
  12. Brita Longlast https://www.brita.com/replacement-filters/longlast/
  13. ZeroWater https://www.zerowater.com/
  14. Aquasana OptimH2O https://www.aquasana.com/drinking-water-filter-systems/reverse-osmosis-claryum
  15. iSpring RCC7 https://www.123filter.com/ac/ispring-rcc7-5-stage-residential-under-sink-reverse-osmosis-water-filter-system-wqa-certified-75-gpd
  16. Importance of maintenance http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/water/factsheet/com/poulead.html
  17. Culligan US-EZ-4 http://culligandiy.com/Undersink-Systems/Dedicated-Faucet-Systems/Premium-Under-Sink-Filter-System-US-EZ-4
  18. iSpring WGB32B-PB https://www.123filter.com/ac/ispring-whole-house-water-filtration-system-sediment-carbon-lead-iron-manganese-big-blue?keyword=WGB32B&model=1
It's hard to get trustworthy advice when it comes to your drinking water, so we made Tips for Taps to help answer your questions. Order a Tap Score Water Test and receive personalized support from professional engineers and scientists by phone, email and chat.

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