Lead poisoning hurts kids the most. Children and infants absorb more lead on average than adults when they’re exposed, and developing brains are the most susceptible to the neurotoxin’s poisonous effects.
And yet schools and daycare centers where children spend their days are under no federal requirement to test their drinking water and make sure it’s free of lead. Only the rare ones that aren’t on a municipal system and use their own water source, such as a well, have an obligation to regularly test.
In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a requirement that public schools and daycare centers test their drinking water for lead. The tests schools conducted as a result of that mandate showed widespread contamination. Yet the requirement was abruptly ended just eight years later when a federal court decision was interpreted as barring it because it falls under the purview of the states. No federal law has been passed since, leaving about 90 percent of the country’s schools without any mandate to regularly test their water.
While lead was banned as a material for water pipes in 1986, the average age of the country’s school buildings is 44 years, long before the ban took effect.
“If you have water sources in public use buildings, there should be requirements to test,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. “The first thing school systems owe parents is the right to know.”
The first thing school systems owe parents is the right to know.
As the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan coincided with several school systems alarming parents with reports of elevated lead levels in their water, a swell of legislation has bubbled up in the states. Bills related specifically to testing drinking water in schools and/or daycares have been introduced in at least seven states so far this year.
In Ohio, a bill sailed through with bipartisan and unanimous backing and has already been signed into law by Republican Gov. John Kasich just months after it was introduced. Its speed and support were notable.
“I’ve been doing this for a little over a decade, and I think it’s the first time I’ve seen that,” Trent Dougherty, general counsel at the Ohio Environmental Council, said. “You rarely see things that reach this level of importance move as quickly and effectively as it did.”
The new law requires public water systems to map “hot spots,” in Dougherty’s words, or areas that have lead service lines or were built before the bans on using lead. If a school or a daycare falls within one of those areas, it will have to test its water regularly. “It’s not a one and done,” he explained, where a school could conduct one round of testing and forget the issue.
The law also provides $12 million to schools that need to remove contaminated fixtures and replace them with lead-free ones. And it significantly reduces the window of time that an entity — be it a municipality or a school — has to inform the public when the levels of lead have exceeded the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion from 30 or even sometimes 60 days down to just two.
“As a whole, Ohio’s bill is among the strongest in the country,” he said.
The issue gained political salience in the state not just because of the scare caused by what happened in Flint, but something that happened much closer to home. In the village of Sebring, Ohio, residents found out that not only did their water have elevated levels of lead, but officials had waited months to notify them. “You could see it in your backyard,” Dougherty said.
You rarely see things that reach this level of importance move as quickly and effectively.
And schools were a particular reason for the speed of its passage. Lawmakers “thought they needed to get this done before school started again in the fall,” Dougherty noted.
Many of the other places with pending or passed legislation have had scares of their own. Six school districts on Long Island, New York reported high lead levels in their drinking water in May, and high levels were found in the drinking water at schools in Ithaca. Last month, New York lawmakers passed a bill requiring all of the state’s schools to conduct a round of lead testing in their water with money for remediation if results are high; it’s still waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature.
New Jersey’s Newark schools have been dealing with their own lead contamination crisis. Sixty schools shut off their drinking water in March. Residents quickly became frustrated when data was later made public that the school system found high levels of lead in its water as long as six years ago. Bills pending in the state legislature would require all schools to test drinking water for lead.
Rhode Island is no stranger to problems with lead hazards. “Lead is a serious issue in Rhode Island becuase this is an area that was built up very early in the history of the modern U.S.,” Laura Brion, director of community organizing and advocacy at the Childhood Lead Action Project, explained. “Lead plumbing and lead in paint is something that’s just widespread throughout our housing stock and structures.” But the issue rose to prominence again recently when a report from the Associated Press found that Providence’s drinking water system was the largest in the country to test above the EPA’s lead action level in 2013 and has breached the limit six times since 2010.
Now, one pending bill would require baseline testing in all of the state’s water systems, as well as in public schools and daycares. It’s still unclear, Brion said, if that means only requiring one test and what the testing protocol will be, nor is it clear what will happen if a school is found to have high lead levels.
This attention is clearly long overdue.
Still, she said, “This is a good step forward.” The key thing, she noted is to make sure that there is follow through. “We’re certainly worried, and it’s certainly possible, that there was enough attention to generate the political will to generate some proposals. But the trick will be to make sure it can persist and turn into the will to pass legislation,” she said.
“This attention is clearly long overdue,” she added.
The issue hasn’t gone unnoticed in Congress. After the crisis in Newark schools, New Jersey Senators Cory Booker (D) and Donald Payne, Jr. (D) introduced a bill that would require water systems to test for lead in school drinking water and notify parents if results come back high. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) introduced a bill that would create a $100 million grant program to encourage testing. Some advocates see a different path forward: using a provision in a child nutrition law from 2010 that mandated that schools and participating daycares provide children with potable water to drink. Right now they’re not required to test to make sure that it’s drinkable, however; the Department of Agriculture could issue guidance that would require that they find out.
National advocates welcome the renewed focus on lead, and particularly in making sure that schools test their water. But it is only the beginning of a process. “My question is now what, or then what,” Green & Healthy Homes’s Norton said of testing bills that have cropped up. “It’s tremendous progress to acknowledge a problem and start to test for it. The next part is to communicate it, the next part is to identify how to remediate it, and the other part is to fund it.”
“When you bury your head in the sand you don’t put sunshine on it, you don’t out it,” she added. “You’ve got to know that there’s a problem.”