Lead taints drinking water in hundreds of schools, day cares across USA
Some 350 water systems that failed lead tests in recent years provide drinking water to schools and child-care centers.
-by Laura Ungar
Whenever Jamison Rich got thirsty after gym or recess, he took a drink from the nearest water fountain at his elementary school.
Only last month did his family learn that the water bubbling out of some fountains contained high levels of lead, a notorious toxin that can silently damage developing brains and slow growth in little bodies like his.
Recently, a blood test on the 7-year-old found more than twice the average level of lead for young children, even though as far as anyone knows he’s never come in contact with lead paint or tainted soil.
Jamison’s school, Caroline Elementary in Ithaca, N.Y., is one of hundreds across the nation where children were exposed to water containing excessive amounts of an element doctors agree is unsafe at any level, a USA TODAY NETWORK investigation found. An analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data showed about 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests a total of about 470 times from 2012 through 2015.
That represents nearly 20% of the water systems nationally testing above the agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion.
One water sample at a Maine elementary school was 41 times higher while another at a Pennsylvania preschool was 14 times higher. And a sink in a music-room bathroom at Caroline Elementary tested this year at 5,000 ppb of lead, results released by the school system show.
That’s the cutoff where the EPA labels a substance “hazardous waste.”
“It’s a scary thing. Nobody expects to have this in their schools,” said Jamison’s mom, Nicole Rich. “Who knows how big the problem actually is?”
Researchers say it could be very, very big.
But at this point it’s impossible to know how big because the federal government requires only about 10% of the nation’s schools and a tiny fraction of day cares — the 8,225 facilities that run their own water systems — to test for lead at all.
The EPA estimates that about 90,000 public schools and half a million child-care facilities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act because they depend on water sources such as municipal utilities expected to test their own water. That means parents have no assurance lead isn’t seeping into children’s water from a school building’s pipes, solder or fixtures.
In fact, many schools that have tested for lead voluntarily have found it, hinting at the true scope of the problem.
“There’s a regulatory black hole when it comes to schools and day-care centers,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech researcher who studies lead in water nationally. “In some ways, it’s an official endorsement of exposure to lead and large-scale health harms that go undetected.”
Babies and children also are left vulnerable at schools and day cares required to test for lead. The USA TODAY NETWORK investigation found spotty enforcement from the EPA and some state governments, as well school leaders’ failures to test as often as required, notify parents about problems in a timely way or fix problems immediately in many cases.
Doctors stress that lead is a cumulative poison that builds up in the body and comes from several sources.
A groundbreaking study from Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who studied lead exposure among children in Rochester, N.Y., found that about 20% was attributed to water, 10% to 15% to contaminated soil and 20% to 30% from other sources such as paint dust. He adds that many variables and sources should be considered, and not everything can be explained.
Compounding the problem:
• Lead-tainted water isn’t used just for drinking and washing. It’s often used for cooking school lunches — where it can wind up in foods like pasta — or making infant formula, posing a particular risk to babies because they consume so much water compared to their size.
• Lead concentrations can rise as water goes unused and stays in contact with plumbing since schools and day cares often are vacant for long stretches. Also, lead particles tend to release sporadically, so a child can go days drinking from a contaminated water fountain before ingesting the toxin.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” Lambrinidou said.
• Blood testing for lead poisoning is typically done in babies, not school-aged children. Symptoms usually don’t show up until dangerous levels have accumulated and even then can be vague, so they often are missed until the damage — such as lowered IQ, behavior problems and developmental delays — has been done.
Widespread threat, mixed response
Given the dangers, the EPA recommends that schools and day-care centers test for lead even if they’re not required to under the agency’s Lead and Copper Rule and work to reduce the toxin. In an email response to questions from USA TODAY NETWORK, the EPA says these facilities serve sensitive populations, so the agency and states prioritize assisting those that test above actionable levels by helping them collect samples and look into practices and equipment that could be causing high lead levels, such as old plumbing.
But a growing chorus of researchers, activists, parents and school officials say this isn’t enough and that all schools and day cares should have to test for lead.
“Our children are drinking this water every day,” Rich said. “The fact it doesn’t always have to be tested kind of blows my mind.”
“EPA regulations have not moved forward with the science,” said President and CEO Ruth Ann Norton of Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, an anti-lead advocacy group. “These are our children. This is poison. … It’s a toxin being ingested, and that should never be OK under any circumstances.”
Among schools and day cares required to test, the USA TODAY NETWORK analysis found problematic lead levels in 42 states. If more than 10% of samples are above 15 ppb, that triggers a water system to take action.
States with the most were Maine, with 44 samples taken from drinking fountains and faucets showing high lead levels at 26 facilities; Pennsylvania, with 43 samples testing high among 37 facilities; and New Jersey, with 34 high readings among 23 facilities. Some schools and day cares failed lead tests four or even five times.
The district took Waterboro off its well and hooked it to municipal water three years ago, put in a water-filtration system at another school and replaced problematic faucets at several schools, Superintendent John Davis said. The system tests for lead regularly and notifies parents quickly.
“Typically, schools are very responsive,” said Roger Crouse, Maine’s drinking water program director.
But responses to lead problems are not always so efficient.
In Bucks County, Pa., one water sample in 2013 tested more than 14 times above the actionable level at Quakertown Christian School’s preschool campus, a rural school in a small borough 50 miles north of Philadelphia. But not until two years later did school leaders turn off the drinking fountains and bring in bottled water for its 60 students and staff members.
Pennsylvania’s state environmental protection department didn’t suggest doing so earlier, and it wasn’t required, said Bill Kirk, the school’s interim executive director. The school took state officials’ advice to change a faucet.
Lead tests taken in September again found high levels of lead. School officials sent a letter to families saying they were trying to minimize lead exposure by providing bottled water and replacing a well head pump and piping.
In Arizona, the USA TODAY NETWORK found that water providers didn’t always conduct the required follow-up tests or notify customers when tests were flagged for high levels of lead.
A school district near Sedona didn’t notify parents until February that a water fountain and a faucet in a preschool room tested in 2013 for high levels of lead in the water. A faucet in a church at a boarding school near the Navajo Reservation triggered an exceedance in 2013, but again no additional testing was done until last year, and no one was notified until last month.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality didn’t tell the boarding school to act until after a reporter asked for information about lead tests. The principal of Holbrook Seventh Day Adventist Indian School — located near Navajo Country and surrounded by quiet, windy, high-desert lands — said the first he had heard about a possible lead problem was a phone call in February from a state staffer.
“It was a bombshell,” Principal Pedro Ojeda said, adding that the caller said, “You’re going to get a letter, and this is going to get reported to the paper and even USA TODAY.”
The school contracted with a private consultant to test the water and submit results to the state, Ojeda said. Staff was not aware of the test results.
The elementary school near Sedona similarly received a letter from Arizona environmental officials about the results of its water sample showing high lead contamination just a couple of weeks after the USA TODAY NETWORK began asking questions. Although a follow-up test came back clear, that school is replacing pipes in the problem area.
Administrators at both schools said they plan to test for lead more often.
Parents told late
Ithaca City School District, where young Jamison is in second grade, also failed to comply with EPA regulations — in this case parents weren’t told about problems quickly so they could protect their kids.
The 5,500-student district is located in a small city that also is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College. Two district schools, Caroline and Enfield elementaries, run their own water systems and are required to test for lead while the other 10 are not because they are connected to municipal water.
A total of four samples from Caroline and Enfield tested above the EPA action level in August and two in follow-up tests in January, according to fact sheets from the county health department.
Even though the first test results came back in September, parents didn’t learn of the problem until February despite requirements to notify the public within 30 days.
Superintendent Luvelle Brown blames “internal and external communication problems” but wouldn’t elaborate except to say personnel issues were involved. He said he wasn’t told about results of the August tests until months afterward and shared them days after he learned them — adding he understands the gravity of the issue, since “my child drinks out of the faucets every day.”
Parents complained about the delay at community meetings, and the district tested the water again at sinks and water fountains throughout Caroline and Enfield, finding numerous levels greater than 100 ppb, according to results the school system released. The highest was the 5,000 ppb sample from the music-room bathroom sink at Caroline.
Officials turned off drinking water sources at the two schools, made bottled water available throughout the district and began looking into what went wrong with the notification process. They also started to review water-sampling data from 2005 for Caroline and Enfield, as well as other district schools not required to test, Brown said.
He shared plans to test all district buildings and vowed to fix any problems, “whatever it takes.”
Amid the turmoil, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., pushed for help from the EPA and recently announced the agency was sending lead experts to help the school system by assisting with tests of the water sources at Caroline and Enfield. In a March 3 letter to the community, the superintendent wrote, “Recent sampling procedures may have produced inaccurate results,” and the health department has advised re-testing.
Parents are incensed.
“My trust is completely gone in the district,” said Rich, who has two children at Caroline and a middle-schooler. The notification delay “took away our choice as parents to provide an alternative.”
Parent Melissa Hoffman agrees. She has three children in the district, and said her daughter, Sareanda, used to drink every day from a water fountain in her kindergarten classroom that measured high for lead.
“No amount of lead is safe,” Hoffman said. “We just don’t know what has been done to our children.”
Her 10-year-old Asyra, a fourth-grader, also drank from a water fountain that tested high for lead, she said. She didn’t show any signs of sickness, but Sareanda used to come home with a rash around her mouth and so tired she needed a long nap.
Doctors say fatigue can be a sign of lead poisoning but a rash isn’t typical although Flint residents also have reported them.
Hoffman said tests for lead in her daughters’ blood came back normal, but she’s still concerned because doctors say lead can be missed if too much time elapses between the exposure and the blood test. Both girls are now drinking bottled water, and Hoffman said Sareanda no longer comes home from school exhausted, and her rash has cleared up.
But Rich wonders about long-term harm to Jamison. The active boy, who runs around a lot and often gets thirsty, was the only one of her children found to have lead in his blood. He’s at twice the average for lead in his blood and just barely under the level that the federal government considers elevated.
Rich said her water at home tested below 15 ppb for lead and she has no lead paint there, so the likely culprit is the water at school.
Voluntary testing uncovers lead
Observers say high lead levels among the mostly small schools and day-care centers required to test are alarming enough. But voluntary testing at larger schools provides troubling evidence that the lead problem may be much bigger than what the EPA exceedance numbers suggest.
Longstanding lead issues have arisen in some of the nation’s biggest cities, including Washington, D.C.; and Baltimore. According to a 2010 article by Lambrinidou, Edwards and a co-author in the journal New Solutions, Baltimore City Public Schools first became aware of lead-in-water contamination in 1992. Drinking fountains were shut off but school administrators unaware of the problem later turned them back on.
After future testing also found high levels of lead, the school system decided on a long-term strategy to use bottled water.
Early this month, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection advised Newark Public Schools to use alternate drinking-water sources after voluntary tests found elevated levels of lead in 30 of 67 district schools. Measurements ranged from 16 to 558 ppb, according to 2015-16 results posted on the department’s website. The school system temporarily shut off all drinking fountains in affected schools, posted warnings in bathrooms not to drink water from faucets, and brought in water coolers and bottled water.
Other schools not required to test have decided to do so in wake of the Flint crisis, uncovering problems of their own.
The Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis sampled its water this year “out of an abundance of caution” and found two water fountains with high levels: one initially testing at 130 ppb and the other at 519 ppb. Both were taken out of service with plans to replace them.
Binghamton City Schools in New York also voluntarily decided to correct lead-in-water problems in February, prompted in part because of issues in nearby Ithaca. Superintendent Marion Martinez had learned the district completed testing in 2013, but nothing was done about locations found to in excess of 15 ppb, and the final report included no recommendations.
After Martinez got a copy of the report, the district shut down seven drinking-water sources flagged as having high lead levels. Five have since been repaired, flushed, re-tested and come in below 15 ppb, and two more remain shut off.
The district now plans to label which are safe to use for drinking
“We don’t have a state or federal legal requirement to test the water, but we have a moral requirement,” Martinez said. “Going into the future, we commit ourselves to testing our drinking water sources every three years. We are obligating ourselves to do that.”
Getting the lead out
EPA officials say they not only encourage voluntary testing but provide guidance to schools and day cares that want to do it while also helping those required to test stay in compliance.
Plumbing materials that contain lead make the agency’s goal of zero lead unreachable, officials said. Regulations help water systems move in the right direction by requiring those with problems to control corrosion and reduce lead in tap water “to the extent feasible.”
In a way, “the violations are the good news. Those schools are testing” and correcting problems, Virginia Tech’s Edwards said. “The ones you should be worried about are … the vast majority of schools not required to test. There, you can have any level of lead.”
Lambrinidou agreed, adding that regulations are fine as far as they go, but there is “a nationwide lack of enforcement.” Many schools also don’t fully understand how lead gets into water or how to test correctly for it, she said.
Even the way action-level exceedances are calculated is problematic because up to 10% of samples can be above 15 ppb of lead, which “allows for 10% of (locations tested) to dispense any concentration of lead whatsoever,” Lambrinidou said.
Another obstacle to dealing with lead-in-water problems is that permanent solutions can be expensive.
The tiny one-school Klondike Independent School District, which sits amid a cotton patch in Lamesa, Texas, plans to replace its entire water system at a cost of $600,000. Superintendent Steve McLaren called the expense “a big chunk of our money.”
McLaren said he’s concerned about how high lead levels might affect students and understands the need to take action.
“I’m always concerned about their health,” he said. “I think we’re doing the best we can with the finances we have.”
Conley Elementary, a rural New Jersey school with five action-triggering water samples from 2012 through 2014, tried several fixes before finding one that worked. School leaders shut down water fountains and cafeteria sinks and began using bottled water for drinking and cooking, attempted to make the water less corrosive, then finally decided to re-pipe the entire system out to the well at a cost of $187,000.
Edwards said he understands many facilities are strapped for cash, but “there’s a law, and we have to follow it.” He points out that not all remedies are expensive: Some water filters cost only $20, and even designating taps as drinking or non-drinking can be temporary fixes.
Norton, with the anti-lead group, said she would like to see tax credits, grants and loans made available to schools and day cares seeking to tackle lead problems because the human cost of failing to address them is too high.
“We see learning difficulties, hyperactivity, developmental delays,” said Marcie Billings, a pediatrician with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Any damage is irreversible.”
And while the dangers of lead are clear, some researchers say it’s not clear how big a part lead-tainted water plays in overall lead exposure, especially since so many schools and day cares don’t have to test for it.
“We don’t really know the collateral damage that’s being caused by lead in water,” Norton said. “We must address this as a society. We’re all better off with children who can read better because they haven’t been harmed by lead. We all benefit when children are healthy.”