In the past few years there have been lots of reports of large cities finding lead in their drinking water. Of course, Flint, MI comes to mind, and they are STILL working on that, but with the new school year come more reports about schools finding high levels of lead in their water fountains. This necessitates turning off the water fountains and bringing in bottled water for students and faculty to drink (which, aside from being very expensive, is a landfill nightmare if they are using disposable plastic water bottles).
Older pipes are much more likely to be lined with lead, and lead was also used to solder pipes together in the past. This is why older cities with older building and older water supplies bear much of the lead burden (it is similar in homes with lead paint: old house=lead hazard). Lead is a heavy, durable metal, which was used in the past in plumbing, paint, even fishing (in fact, lead “sinkers” are still made and sold). When the problem in Flint emerged, it was discovered that officials making critically important decisions about water sourcing were well-informed about budgets, but not about the science of preventing lead leaching out of older pipes. Since city water mains are very large and very buried, they are tremendously difficult and expensive to replace. Luckily, most districts probably have water that is safe, and also luckily, most problems with lead in older city buildings come from water in the pipes within the buildings, not in the water mains under streets and highways, so the fixes are a little easier. But you don’t know about any building unless you take the time and trouble to find out.
Part of the problem is that there is no federally mandated testing of schools, although some states require periodic testing. Less than half of school districts in the U.S. reported testing their water for lead in the last 2 years. The EPA (already a very leadership-challenged agency, as you may know) recommends testing and also recommends maximum safe cutoff levels of 20 parts per billion (or ppb), but there are no mandates and so school districts are left to create policies on their own. Unfortunately, this is not what school officials are expert in, so everyone does things differently, and many, many districts are not even testing. In fact, the recommended maximum lead level of 20 ppb was set over 20 years ago – and since then the recommended “action level” for lead in blood tests done on very young children has been lowered twice, without any changes to the recommended maximum levels found in school drinking water. Lead is known to be toxic to humans at any level, and can affect most organs and body systems. Some of its most dangerous effects are on the developing brain, especially in infants and young children.
I think this should be seen as a public health emergency – the fact that we are not seeing higher lead levels in many older children due to aging pipes in schools and home is because many children are not tested for lead after they become toddlers or preschoolers. We would not accept this level of municipal neglect in our home drinking water (again, see Flint), so why is it ok in our schools? As parents of children in school, we should be thrilled when our children make a choice to drink water from a water fountain, which is cheap, healthy, and environmentally thoughtful. Parents should demand that their school districts both test the water in each school and make the results known to parents. If levels are safe, great, but if not, we all need an action plan.