Will the EPA’s Updated Lead and Copper Rule Make School Drinking Water Safer?
In early October 2019, the EPA announced updates to its regulations on lead in drinking water to finally include protections for schools and childcare centers.
This is one of many proposed changes to the agency’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) aimed at creating better practices around lead testing and treatment. Although these drinking water regulations have existed since 1991, this is the first time a federal law would specifically require utilities to test the safety of schools they service.
Creating a federal requirement for school testing has been a long-awaited step toward preventing childhood lead exposure. But public health advocates warn that some of the announced changes may actually be a step backward in solving the true cause of lead-related crises in places like Flint, Michigan.
So, what do these updates actually mean for your child’s school?
What is the Lead and Copper Rule and Why Should It Be Updated?
As we discuss in our post concerning lead leaching, the most common sources of lead in drinking water are pipes, faucets, and other plumbing materials.
Though lead pipes and solder were banned in 1986, an estimated 6 to 10 million lead service lines are still connected to homes throughout the United States. Disinfectants used during water treatment can cause corrosion in older pipelines, dissolving lead particles into the water they supply.
The LCR calls for water systems to control this corrosion and monitor lead levels by testing a sample of their customers' water semi-annually. If the amount of lead found in more than 10% of customer taps is over an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (PPB), the utility must take steps to cut down exposure. This includes removing at least 7% of the lead pipes in their network a year if the utility already has corrosion treatment in place.
How Does This Apply to Schools?
Since the beginning of this regulation, schools have been a blind spot for testing despite childrens’ vulnerability to lead. Even though the LCR calls for utilities to monitor lead throughout their distribution networks, the schools themselves that rely on utility-supplied water don't specifically need to be tested. This means school water fountains are often not included in LCR testing requirements. This is particularly a problem because so much of lead contamination is on-premise (on-site) rather than in the city water lines.
Before the announced updates, it had been left up to states to create and enforce their own school water testing programs. As of 2018, only 24 states and the District of Columbia had testing requirements for their schools. A report by Harvard and the University of California comparing state initiatives found that there is no standard practice in running these programs—including how water samples are collected and tested or how results get communicated.
These choices can greatly impact how schools respond to lead found in their water, if at all. For example, schools that test water in multiple taps, rather than just one, are more likely to find elevated lead levels.
States also differ in how much lead found in a school’s water triggers a response, ranging from 5 to 20 PPB. No amount of lead is considered safe for children, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that the lead concentration of school water fountains be kept under 1 PPB. But, according to the analysis of state programs, even using an action level of 5 PPB would result in a 128% increase of schools that found at least one elevated lead sample.
Will the New LCR Changes Fix the Problem?
Now for the good news. The updated LCR would require water systems to:
The proposal also includes new guidelines on the number of taps that need testing and how samples should be taken. Water systems would be expected to complete testing at all schools and child care facilities in their distribution network every five years.
Utilities would also need to start taking protective action at a new lower “trigger level” of 10 PPB of lead detected in their water. This includes creating a publicly-accessible inventory of all lead service lines in their area.
What Doesn’t the Update Do?
Many of these changes are a great step forward, but may not solve the issue of lead in school drinking water.
A crucial part of achieving safe water is removing the millions of lead pipes connected to facilities around the country. The updates would create a more lenient requirement for utilities, allowing them to remove 3% of lead pipes per year instead of the current 7% requirement. Environmental advocates say this would add 20 years to how long it would take to replace these hazardous pipes.
Utilities who perform the testing are also not responsible for taking any action to fix lead exposure in schools, aside from communicating test results. This has been part of the historic complexity of enforcing the LCR, because lead may be coming from the taps and plumbing within the school itself even if the water supply has been treated for corrosion. It’s still up to schools and state programs to figure out how to fund and enforce fixing the problem.
Concerned about lead in your drinking water? Lead is one of the most commonly detected contaminants in the United States–namely due to aging plumbing and distribution lines. Tap Score tests can help. The Essential City Water Test analyzes for lead, copper, and a multitude of other metals, minerals, and general chemistry. Every Tap Score Report (take a look at an example report here) includes a detailed, quantified breakdown of every contaminant tested in an easy-to-understand way. Every report also includes unbiased treatment recommendations tailored to what's found in your water.
Though testing will go a long way in alerting schools to lead exposure, additional policies are still needed to keep students safe. Check out Tap Score’s evaluation of state lead programs to see what your state is doing to address lead in schools.