Editor's Note (The View From Here)

Rough Waters Ahead

It’s not a new problem, just one we have ignored — lead in drinking water. Since the crisis in Flint, lead in school water is receiving new attention, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the EPA, states recognize the importance of ensuring safe drinking water in schools, but local authorities say they don’t have the resources for testing programs, let alone remediation. School budgets are tight, and permanent solutions are expensive. Do we pay teachers or fix the plumbing?

Aging buildings add to the problem. The average age of the nations’ schools is 44 years. Buildings built prior to 1986 — when lead plumbing was banned by an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act — contain lead pipes and lead solder.

The 1988 Lead Contamination Control Act (LCCA) required schools to scrap lead-lined water coolers, test drinking water and remedy any contamination found. In 1996, a federal appeals court struck down part of the law affecting schools, making compliance voluntary. The EPA estimates that approximately 10,000 schools and childcare facilities maintain their own water supply and are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). That leaves approximately 90,000 public schools and 500,000 childcare facilities unregulated. When districts do test and find a problem, parents are not always notified and the problem is not always addressed.

Since Flint, more stories about lead in schools have been reported. Water fountains in half of the Newark Public Schools were shut off after water tests found lead in excess of the EPA action limit of 15 parts per billion. Tacoma Schools informed parents of extraordinarily high levels of lead found at two of their elementary schools in May 2015 that went unreported and unfixed. With over half of district buildings constructed before 1928, Camden City Schools have been distributing bottled water since 2002. In Boston, less than a third of city school buildings still use tap water. The rest are using bottled water.

The issue is real. The CDC reports that even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. The effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected. Lead is no longer an issue that can be swept under the rug. Not testing the water isn’t a solution. The job now is to find the funding and fix it... which will be no easy task.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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