Districts nationwide address elevated lead levels in school water
More than one-third of U.S. school districts have elevated levels of lead in school water, according to a July report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Administrators must now work quickly to determine the best and most cost-effective solutions for providing safe drinking water amid a lack of national standards and federal funding.
“It’s total chaos,” says Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who helped uncover the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
“If you ever wanted to design a system to make everyone frustrated, this would be it—especially post-Flint, when people’s expectations about lead and water are rising so fast, and our ability to meet those standards is years behind.”
The Environmental Protection Agency set a voluntary guidance for schools in 1994, which recommends that water fixtures should be taken out of service if they exceed lead levels of 20 parts per billion.
Since it is voluntary, no federal funding exists to resolve lead issues outside of district budgets, Edwards says. New guidance is expected as early as the end of 2018.
The lead standard for bottled water is 5 ppb, which most modern plumbing systems are designed to meet, Edwards says. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends school water not exceed 1 ppb.
“When people started talking about schools trying for 5 ppb, replumbing might be an option,” Edwards says. “But once you say 1 ppb, forget it. Our current plumbing can’t achieve that.”
Weighing the options
Only 43 percent of districts tested drinking water for lead in 2017, according to the federal report. Of those, 37 percent detected elevated levels, and took steps to reduce or eliminate exposure, such as replacing plumbing, installing filters or new fixtures, or offering bottled water.
Detroit Public Schools Community District voluntarily tested all of its water sources in 2016-17, and found elevated levels of copper and/or lead in 57 out of 86 schools, says Chrystal Wilson, assistant superintendent of communications and marketing. Results from 27 schools are pending.
The district turned off all drinking water in the affected schools, and provided bottled water and water coolers. Administrators are now working through the bid processes to install water stations throughout each impacted school.
Maryland is one of eight states that requires schools to test for lead. Montgomery County Public Schools tested some 13,300 water fixtures in its 206 schools, including drinking fountains, water coolers and classroom sinks.
The district found 238 had elevated lead levels, representing 1.8 percent of the total, says Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman.
State protocols require schools to shut down fixtures that are even 0.1 percent over the limit. Montgomery County is halfway through repairs, and plans to begin retesting for lead in January.
Replacing the fixtures will cost the district about $500,000, which will come from the regular operating budget, Zuckerman says.
Districts lacking funding to replace fixtures or install filters can seek out grants, Zuckerman says. “Ultimately, we can’t compromise on student safety,” he adds. “We have to find ways to reallocate precious dollars.”
A central water station is the least expensive option compared to providing bottled water or water filters, or replumbing, Virginia Tech’s Edwards says. “Replumbing the whole school is expensive, and won’t meet the proposed standard anyway,” he says.
“We have to learn to live with this lead in plumbing for the foreseeable future, and every district needs to make their own decision in the absence of national standards.”
Administrators should create a comprehensive, transparent plan for testing and communicating results, Zuckerman says, including immediately posting findings on district websites.
Administrators should also realize that not everyone will be pleased with the decisions made to mitigate the issue, Edwards says.
“There’s no doubt we have to do something—this is a real health risk,” he says. “But meeting some of the proposed standards will take away from other worthy education goals that need funding.”