Legislator ‘appalled’ that NC schools haven’t tested for lead in water

by Colin Campbell, originally posted on June 26, 2016


Schools and child care centers would be required to test their drinking water for lead under a bill moving forward in the N.C. House.

House Majority Leader Mike Hager, a Rutherfordton Republican, sponsored the bill that could be on the House floor for a vote sometime this week.

“We have to make sure our children are protected when they’re in school,” Hager said Thursday before a House committee gave the bill its unanimous approval.

Hager referenced a USA Today investigation that found 2,000 water systems across the country that had lead levels exceeding federal limits. The findings included an elementary school in Nash County.

Lead contamination has been a hot topic nationally in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.

Under Hager’s bill, schools and child care centers would have to test multiple drinking fountains and sinks throughout their facilities in 2017. A state public health agency would then analyze the water samples. Facilities would be required to post the results and send them to the parents and guardians of children.

If any water sources exceed the federal limits, the school or child care facility would be required to immediately find alternate water. Estimates indicate that $4.9 million is needed to cover the costs of testing.

“We do see more than 1,000 children a year with elevated exposures,” Ed Norman, who heads the Children’s Environmental Health division at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, told the committee.

Norman said the bulk of those cases stem from lead paint, while about 20 percent were related to contaminated water. “We do not have much data on levels in schools and child care centers,” he said.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality tests municipal water systems for lead, but it doesn’t test schools individually. Lead pipes are present in some older school buildings.

Studies found high blood lead levels in children in Greenville, Durham and Wayne County a decade or so ago, according to a 2009 article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. While the public utilities didn’t have lead pipes, changes in chemicals affected lead pipes in home plumbing.

It’s unclear how many schools and child care facilities across the state might have lead pipes, but many of them were built when the pipes were commonly used.

“I’m just appalled that these schools haven’t been tested previously,” said Rep. Chris Millis, a Pender County Republican. “I’m looking forward to seeing what will be found here.”

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that Red Oak Elementary in Nash County had elevated lead levels last summer and did not notify families. The test results were posted on a wall in a kitchen because only janitorial staff were working at the time. More tests were conducted before school resumed and the levels dropped below federal limits.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, cautioned against “sensationalizing” the issue of lead in water, and he said anyone who did so “needs a real good spanking and be sent to time out.”

“I personally hope that what we will find is a situation that is manageable that we can address promptly,” he said.

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