Keeping kids healthy and safe is a top priority for parents. There’s a lot to consider when ensuring all the boxes of potential hazards are ticked. Here’s one you might not have thought about – the safety of drinking water in schools.
The cities of Flint and Newark have been in the news due to elevated lead levels in their drinking water. Many who’ve read about the issues facing these communities consider themselves in the clear with news reports about lead in the water of their hometowns.
Parents, take note. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wants people to be aware of the nationwide issue of lead exposure in schools’ drinking water.
The NRDC Lays Out the Facts
“Most parents assume the drinking water in their children’s schools is safe, but unfortunately, that’s not always true,” the NRDC alerted Parentology via an email that spurred a one-on-one conversation. “Many schools and childcare centers are housed in old buildings with aging plumbing fixtures and pipes that contain lead, which can leach into the drinking water.”
And should tests proclaiming a home or school is safe due to amounts of “lead parts per billion” (ppb), the NRDC makes clear, “There is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead, which can decrease a child’s cognitive capacity, cause behavior problems, and limit the ability to concentrate—all of which affect lifetime learning.”
So what can families do?
Here are five steps Joan Matthews, NRDC senior attorney and director of Urban Water, recommends families follow to keep your child safe from lead-contaminated water and ways to help correct the underlying problem.
Five Steps Towards Lead-Free Water in Schools
1. Pack Certified Filtered Water
And not just any filtered water. Matthews recommends NSF International/Water Quality Association (WQA) filters that have been certified for the removal of lead. “Look for those certifications and install home filters according to instructions,” she advises. Why properly following usage instructions is vital – “Things like running hot water through these filters can throw off the system and render them ineffective.”
Why it’s important for drinking water to be lead-free? Matthews has written extensively on the topic. A poisonous heavy metal, lead can cause serious health problems. “Young children and fetuses are the most susceptible, particularly their brains and nervous systems, and some impacts can be irreversible lasting into adulthood.”
Matthews continues, “Lead exposure has been found to decrease children’s cognitive capacity and cause behavior issues, including problems with focus.”
2. Spread the Word About Safe Water Concerns
Good conversation starting points are your child’s teachers and the school nurse. Matthews says school nurses are the eyes and ears of a school when it comes to health concerns. “They have their finger on the school’s pulse, see everything and stay up-to-date through conversations with everyone, especially the janitors.”
3. Ask for School Water Test Results
Ask the school principal whether the drinking water has been tested and ask to see test results.
Something to be aware of when reading those results: “The EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) doesn’t have a mandatory program for testing [lead],” Matthews says. “It only has a voluntary program.”
Matthews gives the EPA’s three Ts program for reducing lead exposure in schools’ drinking water a thumbs up. However, “If the federal government doesn’t have a mandatory program, then it’s up to the states to decide what they want to do.”
Not all states have mandatory testing. And if it is mandatory, testing isn’t required every year. As many as seven years can go by between testing in certain states. Add to that results can vary drastically throughout the same day.
Monitored during these tests are lead concentrations measured in parts per billion. The EPA states: If lead concentrations exceed an action level of 15 ppb or copper concentrations exceed an action level of 1.3 ppm in more than 10% of customer taps sampled, the system must undertake a number of additional actions to control corrosion.
What’s allowable under current federal law? Per Matthews’ research, “plumbing, fixtures and fittings can contain some lead – up to 0.25% — and still be considered lead-free.”
Key to remember: no amount of lead is safe in drinking water.
4. Raise Awareness and Advocate for Lead-Free Water in Schools
Raise drinking water safety and lead concerns with your parent-teacher organization (PTO or PTA). Advocate that your school district installs certified filtration systems to remove lead from drinking water fountains and tap water.
“The most protective thing we can do for kids in schools is filter first, then test to see if the filter’s working or if there’s a problem further up the line in the school’s plumbing system,” Matthews says.
5. Get Informed Via Your Pediatrician
Talk with your pediatrician about concerns regarding lead in drinking water.
Matthews gives kudos to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who exposed Flint, Michigan’s lead contamination. “She was a savior of so many families,” Matthews says. “Pediatricians know a lot about lead in drinking water and how it can impact your family’s health.” Her advice: strike up a conversation.
Testing and Telling
Progress is often stalled due to legal red tape. Case in point, when the EPA attempted regulating lead in school water, a court ruled a flaw in the Safe Water Drinking Water Act prevented a requirement for schools to test water. The result upped trigger water system action requirements from 15 ppb to 20 ppb, giving even more leeway for lead content in water.
And though the five tips don’t include this call to action, consider adding it to the list. Get involved on a broader level. Press for “Testing and Telling,” so reported lead exposure in schools’ drinking water can move more rapidly towards zero.
Lead in US Schools’ Drinking Water: Sources
Joan Leary Matthews, NRDC senior attorney and director of Urban Water
EPA’s 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water Toolkit
NRDC’s Model State Legislation for Removing Lead from US Schools