What Every Parent Needs to Know About Preventing Lead Exposure in School Drinking Water
Plus our recommendations for filters
It's almost the end of summer and time to start thinking about those back-to-school supplies. Backpack, lunch box, pencils, pens, crayons, notebooks, NSF/ANSI 53 certified water bottles to filter lead…wait, what was that last one? Yep, many children in this country will be attending school in a state where there is currently no requirement to filter and test school drinking water for lead. Even in states and counties where they do have laws on the books, there are still gaps that need to be addressed to better protect children. So, here is what you need to know and what you can do about it.
No Safe Level of Lead
First off, just a reminder that scientists, health professionals, and public health official all agree that lead exposure causes irreversible life-long, physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems (1). Young children are far more vulnerable to lead exposure because it takes a much smaller dose to impact a child's development. In addition, children absorb lead more readily into their bodies than adults (2). This is why in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called for stricter regulations, recommending a 1 part-per-billion (ppb) threshold for lead in school drinking water (3).
The Problem at Schools
Like much of our infrastructure, public schools all over the nation are aging. This means that sources including old lead service lines, water pipes, pipe fittings, sink faucets, and water fountains may leach lead into the drinking water and water used to prep food in cafeterias. A recent Harvard and University of California joint study looked at available data from the 25 existing state programs between 2016-2018 and found that nearly half the schools tested had elevated lead levels (4). However as the report noted, all of the states used higher threshold levels than the AAP's 1 ppb health-based standard and there was no uniformity in testing protocols or procedures. This means that many more drinking water taps were most certainly above this threshold for safe drinking water, but were not captured in the data.And just having one clear test from a couple of years ago is not good enough. Lead leaches erratically due to a number of external variables including change in the pH of water, frequency of water use, water disinfectant treatments, corrosion control measures, temperature, pipe disturbance from construction or operation of heavy machinery nearby, etc (5). Also, under federal law, low levels of lead are still allowed in new drinking water fixtures manufactured today (6). This is why many public health advocates recommend filtering all drinking water at the tap until we fix the old infrastructure and get all of the lead out of our plumbing.
Federal Guidelines and State Laws and Regulations
So, what laws are in place to protect school children? The fact of the matter is that there is no federal law mandating filtering and testing drinking water sources (taps) for lead in schools. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently updated its guidelines called the "3T's for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water Toolkit," but these are only voluntary best practices for schools, childcare facilities, states, and water systems.
So, what is being done to remedy the lack of federal policy? Well, some states and counties have passed laws or implemented programs to reduce the risk of lead in drinking water. The Harvard and University of California study, a study by the U.S. Green Building Council, and an Environment America report list states that have various programs and laws established to target this problem. However, the laws are a patchwork of policies and regulations and even the most protective laws in the nation fall short of what scientists and health professionals recommend. The best practices for filtering water and testing just aren't being fully implemented or followed.
What You Can Do
Ask Your School Questions
So, what sort of steps can you take in the short- and long-term to better protect your children from lead in the water they drink at school? Start with asking questions! The more you know, the better equipped you are to protect your children. Here is a link to a list of questions to get you started. Every school, county, and state will have different answers to these questions, but this list will give you a better indication of where you need to start.
Filter and Test
- Assume every drinking water source (tap) is a risk.
- Send your children to school with an NSF/ANSI 53 and 42 certified for lead water bottle with a filter like the Astrea bottle.
- You can also donate an NSF/ANSI 53 and 42 certified for lead water pitcher, tank with filters or faucet mounted filter for your child's classroom. Some filters are better than others though. You can find out more about the percentage of lead removed by looking at performance data sheets that some manufacturers provide. Here are some different options that are NSF/ANSI 53 and 42 certified to filter out lead.
- Filter and test at home too of course! You can send your kids to school with water bottles, but you need to make sure your water at home is safe. Here is a link to another great guide on installing and maintaining point of use filters that can be applied at home or at school called, "Point of Use Water Filters: A Grassroots Train-the-Trainer Program." It is important to note that flushing and replacing filters helps maintain their effectiveness, while also preventing harmful bacteria buildup. The CDC also has a list of certified labs where you can have your water tested.
- Assess your home for lead service lines, plumbing, and old fixtures. This video demonstrates how to conduct a preliminary visual and scratch test of your homes' plumbing. If you don't own, you can also ask your landlord for plumbing records. In addition, you can contact your local water utility to see if they have information on this. Water utilities may have records, but these are often incomplete or inaccurate and should be verified.
Get Involved In Your Community
- Find out what local legislation/regulations or programs exist for schools and lead in drinking water. Check out the state reports at the bottom of this webpage and Environment America's virtual map. Also, Appendix A on page 29 of the Green Building Council's report has a really useful table summarizing the various laws and programs. If your state isn't listed in these resources, start a conversation with your children's school leaders and ask questions.
- Petition your state, local government, school, and school district for more protective measures. Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) recently put together a "Model Law" for states to consider adopting. This link has a lot of useful information on what should go into legislation that is based on scientific, health-based standards.
- Other things you could do to get involved include the following:
- Attend public hearings and testify.
- Meet with your state and local representatives.
- Engage other parents, PTA's, school officials, and community members to raise awareness and garner multiple stakeholder support.