Schools around the country find lead in water, with no easy answers
by Brady Dennis, originally posted on July 4, 2016
In Portland, Ore., furious parents are demanding the superintendent’s resignation after the state’s largest public school district failed to notify them promptly about elevated lead levels detected at taps and fountains.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) has ordered lead testing at every public school in the state after dozens of schools in Newark and elsewhere were found to have lead-contaminated water supplies.
In the District, which experienced a devastating lead crisisbarely a decade ago, officials last month announced plans to spend millions of dollars to install water filters and more rigorously test the city’s public schools and recreation centers after a handful were found to have unacceptable lead levels.
The ongoing crisis in Flint, Mich., has shined a spotlight on the public-health hazards that lead continues to pose in U.S. drinking water. In particular, it has led to renewed pressure to test for the problem in the nation’s schools, where millions of young children, the age group most vulnerable to lead poisoning, spend their days.
“Unfortunately you find schools that are failing, and some are failing miserably,” said Robert Barrett, the chief operating officer for Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories, a New Jersey-based environmental testing laboratory. He said the firm is booked through the summer, as schools race to test for lead before students return for a new academic year. “Before Flint, we’d get a call maybe once a month from a school. Now, it’s daily,” he said.
Public health officials agree that no amount of lead exposure is safe. Even at low levels, lead can cause serious and irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of young children. The result can be lasting behavioral, cognitive and physical problems. In short, it can alter the trajectory of a child’s life.
School systems throughout the country have long grappled with lead in water, due in part to aging buildings laden with lead-bearing pipes and fixtures. But even now, the vast majority of the nation’s schools are not legally required by states or the federal government to test their water on a regular basis.
Most public school districts, cash-starved and understaffed, don’t make it a priority. Years can pass before a calamity such as the one in Flint compels school officials to undertake a new round of testing.
“The pressure usually comes from the outside,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who has long studied lead contamination in water. “When schools sample, it’s more often than not because they have been squeezed into a corner.”
After contaminated water in Flint became national news, parents and teachers in some parts of the country pushed for lead testing at their own schools. The results have often turned up reminders that lead problems persist decades after they first surface.
“Every parent assumes that someone must have taken care of this problem decades ago,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped expose lead crises in Washington and Flint. “They’re always shocked to discover that it hasn’t been fixed.”
Edwards and other experts partly blame the regulatory vacuum that leaves about 90 percent of the nation’s schools with no mandatory requirements for testing and limited guidance on how to properly remediate the problem when they do find lead in the water. Only schools that have their own water source, rather than receiving water from a municipal system, must sample regularly for lead and meet certain standards.
In addition, the old age of many schools around the country makes it difficult to completely eliminate the risk of lead in the water without major, costly investments in replacing lead pipes, faucets and fountains.
Lambrinidou says it is not enough for schools to simply test a tap or fountain once for lead, then declare it safe. That is because lead can appear sporadically in a water system as particles break off or leach into the water at unpredictable times — something researchers call the “Russian roulette” phenomenon.
That situation can be exacerbated in schools, where water can sit stagnant in pipes over weekends and holidays. “This is exactly the condition that worsens lead-in-water contamination,” Lambrinidou said.
She said the post-Flint push for lead testing in schools is preferable to no testing, but not as ideal as a more systematic approach.
“Nationally, this testing fever is good, because we want to know what’s happening in schools,” Lambrinidou said. “But it can also be misleading if the results are used to declare that any one tap is safe or not. I’m concerned the testing that schools are doing is more to allay parent fears than it is to truly understand the science of lead in water.”
Testing fever is unlikely to subside soon.
In Chicago, the head of the public school system has pledged to do “whatever it takes” to rectify lead problems after risky levels of the toxic substance were detected in dozens of buildings. In Boston and other Massachusetts communities, officials have shut down fountains and offered students bottled water after stepped-up testing at nearly two dozen schools revealed elevated lead in water sources. Dozens of other districts are facing similar calls for action.
The American Medical Association last month said it also would push for more state and federal laws to remove lead service lines around the country, better inform the public of water testing results and require all schools and registered day-care sites to routinely test for lead in drinking water.
“Even though children and infants absorb more lead than the average adult, there are no real safeguards in place to ensure that the drinking water is safe at the facilities where most of their time is spent,” the group’s president, Andrew Gurman, said in a statement.
In Portland, writer Joe Kurmaskie says that for the first time, he is considering leaving the city. Kurmaskie’s wife is a public school teacher, and the couple have three boys in the Portland school system, the youngest of whom will soon head to first grade.
“We just feel we’ve been let down, lied to,” Kurmaskie said, adding that his wife has long advised her students not to drink the water. “We understand these are old schools. [But] you have to not poison the kids.”
Kurmaskie, who aired his frustrations at a recent public hearing, suspects he isn’t alone. “If you don’t have a safe place to send your kids, people will stop sending them,” he said. “I can’t just knowingly send my child into harm’s way.”
In Baltimore, the city’s history of lead problems in public schools has resulted in an unorthodox long-term solution.
Elevated lead levels surfaced in many of its schools in the early 1990s, prompting the city to shut off contaminated fountains. But the issue resurfaced a decade later when it became clear that some of the troubled fountains had been put back into service.
After years of testing, retesting and unsuccessful attempts to rectify the problem, school leaders decided that they could not guarantee safety without replacing every pipe and fixture that contained lead. That would have been a massive — and massively expensive — undertaking. Instead, they moved the entire system to bottled water in 2007.
“It was the only way to absolutely ensure that our students were not drinking water that would be tainted by lead,” said Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for Baltimore City Schools.
In the years since, the system has renovated half a dozen schools and installed new filtration systems in each one. But about 80,000 students in Baltimore remain on bottled water. It costs close to a half-million dollars a year, and the stream of paper cups and plastic Deer Park bottles creates much more waste than traditional fountains.
But Scroggins said it is a trade-off he can live with.
“It was the best decision,” he said. “When it comes to lead in the water, you don’t want to take any chances.”