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Lead in school water guide

What to Do if Your School Has Lead


So your school system found lead in its drinking water 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 and reverse osmosis systems.

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. 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.

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