Less than half of U.S. school districts are testing their drinking water for lead, according to a new government report. Those that do are seeing alarming results: more than a third found elevated levels of the substance, which can have severe and potentially deadly health consequences.
Only 43 percent of school districts around the country tested for lead in 2017, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on Tuesday. Of those schools, which serve 35 million students, 37 percent found “elevated levels” of lead, after which point they “reduced or eliminated exposure.” Their efforts included replacing water fountains and other measures, like introducing water filtration systems.
But 41 percent of districts — serving 12 million students — had not tested for lead last year. Meanwhile, 16 percent of districts around the country reported they were unsure if they had tested or not.
The GAO report, which analyzed 549 U.S. school districts, also found regional discrepancies. Northeastern school districts were notably more likely to test for lead than other regions of the country. They were also more likely to find traces of the potent neurotoxin, which can cause headaches, memory loss, fatigue, and nausea, in addition to heart disease and high blood pressure.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), half a million children between ages 1 and 5 have levels of lead in their blood high enough to constitute a health concern.
There is no federal law mandating lead testing but a 2005 memo backed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Education, and the CDC provides school districts with testing guidance. Only eight states require public K-12 schools to test for lead, according to the Environmental Working Group. That requirement notably excludes private child care centers.
The GAO report notes that the current guidance available is lacking in a number of areas, something that may be contributing to the underwhelming testing numbers.
“Although EPA guidance emphasizes the importance of addressing elevated lead levels, GAO found that some aspects of the guidance, such as the threshold for taking remedial action, were potentially misleading and unclear, which can put school districts at risk of making uninformed decisions,” the GAO report notes.
The report advises that the EPA should update the guidance in addition to working with the Department of Education to increase outreach efforts to schools and to emphasize the importance of testing for lead.
The GAO report itself came at the request of six Democrats, including members of the House Energy and Commerce and Senate HELP committees. This includes Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). In a joint statement released Tuesday, the lawmakers called on the Trump administration to act.
“This report should serve as a wake-up call to the Trump Administration that it must take immediate action to address lead in drinking water,” the six Democrats wrote. The lawmakers emphasized that the federal government should finalize a stronger Lead and Copper Rule, the regulation that governs the concentration of those substances allowed in public drinking water.
Some advocates went a step further, calling for federal funding to aid mandatory universal lead testing. In a statement circulated Wednesday morning, the non-profit Food & Water Watch pressed lawmakers to pass the WATER Act, which would seek to improve water systems nationally and create a program to replace lead piping and plumbing in schools.
“It is no mystery that lead is a problem that is rampant throughout our schools and throughout all of our aging water systems,” the organization said in a statement. “Why our federal leaders haven’t addressed this problem with a funding solution yet defies belief. But it’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Public awareness of lead in drinking water has grown since 2014, when a water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan first garnered national attention. In that instance, insufficient water treatment following a shift in water sources exposed more than 100,000 people to hazardous lead levels. Four years later, Flint residents are still without reliable public drinking water.
Other areas have also struggled with lead issues. On Wednesday morning, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) announced that another $4 million would go towards helping the city of Milwaukee replace its lead pipes. A report published last May found that Milwaukee failed to take basic steps to protect children already suffering the effects of lead exposure. A 2016 study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revealed some measure of lead toxicity and exposure in every state in the country.