7 Questions Parents Ask About Lead in School Water

boy drinks water at school fountain.
Schools are taking new steps to ensure that water is safe to drink. Juanmonino via Getty Images

In late 2015 news of rampant lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Michigan caused schools across the nation to wonder if their buildings might also have lead-contaminated water. Several schools across the nation began testing their water, with some schools discovering elevated lead levels in their schools.

As a parent, you may be wondering if your child's school has recently tested its water.

Perhaps you have even received a letter from your child's school letting you know that they plan to test for lead during an upcoming school break. You may have received a letter from your child's school letting you know that some of the drinking outlets have elevated lead levels.

While lead in school water is an important public health concern, it is important to keep the potential impact to your child in perspective. Children may consume water at school, but it is unlikely that the school, especially a single tap within the school, is your child's primary water source. Children also drink water at home, and often have bottled water, milk or juice served with their lunches  or snacks.

Here are answers to the questions you may have about lead in school water.

How Does Lead Get into School Water Supplies?

Lead in drinking water usually comes from old, corroded pipes that were made with an alloy containing lead or were connected with lead containing solder.

 Schools and plumbing that were built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipe or solder, although newer buildings may still have lead.

Lead is a naturally occurring substance, and is rarely found in groundwater. Public treatment facilities would remove this lead before it reached school plumbing.

Some rural schools may get their water directly from a ground source.

As the pipes, solder, or fixtures corrode, the lead is slowly leached into the water. Corrosion happens faster when water is acidic or has a low mineral content. Heat can also increase the rate at which leaching occurs, making hot water pipes and faucets more likely to become contaminated by lead.

Because this corrosion is a slow process that takes place over many years, it has been easy for state regulators and school officials to neglect testing school water.

Why Is The Focus on Lead in School Water Rather Than Lead in Homes?

Schools are where our young children spend their days, and drink water while they are there. Lead can build up in a person's system over their lifetime, so more exposure in childhood could lead to more problems later in life.

The difference in the timing of school water use also can potentially increase lead amounts in water. Homes often use their water on a regular basis. Families use their water every day, at a variety of times through the day.

School buildings often go unused for days or weeks at a time. The water that is sitting in those pipes has time to pick up much more lead than a home's pipes, where the water is flushed through regularly.

What Problems Can Lead in School Water Cause?

There are a variety of symptoms that result from lead poisoning. There is no amount of lead in the body that has been deemed safe. In other words, if someone has any amount of lead in their system, it is possible that their health is being negatively affected.

Children who have elevated lead levels may not have obvious symptoms. Lead may still affect a variety of different body systems. Lead poisoning may cause any or all of the following in children:

  • Behavioral issues such as crankiness, shortened attention span, hyperactivity, and irritability
  • Tiredness, fatigue, and trouble sleeping 
  • Digestive issues like poor appetite, weight loss, stomach pain

You do not need to be immediately alarmed if your child has some of these symptoms. The symptoms listed above are shared with many other disorders and common diseases. The common cold  can cause tiredness, fatigue and sleeping troubles. Stomach flu can cause poor appetite and stomach pain. It is only through lead exposure that lead can enter the body.

Who Monitors School Water Lead Levels?

The federal agency in charge of water quality is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Different states may also have a state regulatory agency that governs water quality. State water quality often falls under an environmental or natural resource office.

While the EPA has written guidance on monitoring lead for public and school water systems, state governments decide how to monitor water for contaminants. According to a May 10, 2016 Associated Press news article, no state actually requires schools to test for lead.

While some districts in the US have regularly test for lead, most have not. Since the Flint, Michigan water issues of late 2015 garnered media attention, many school districts have decided to begin testing for lead.

Where Can I Find Out If My Child's School Has Been Tested?

Many schools have decided to test their water with the news of the Flint, Michigan water issues. You can watch for updates in parent newsletters or other school communications to see if your child's school plans to do testing in the future. The EPA has a publication advising schools to have a great deal of transparency when testing water for lead.

If you receive a letter from your child's school letting you know of upcoming water tests, you shouldn't assume that there is any specific reason that they are testing other than it has become a recent issue in the media.

If you haven't received anything about testing school water for lead, a search of your school district's website is a great place to begin your search. If you would like to use a search engine such as Google to find the information quickly, here are suggested search terms: lead testing, <school name>, water testing, Pb testing, lead tests, water quality at site:<url of your school district>.

If you do are unable to find any information in school correspondence or on the school website, consider politely asking your school's staff if the school has recently had it's water tested. If the school hasn't had its water tested, you may inspire the school to look into testing. There are resources to help schools gain funding or support for EPA-certified water testing available on the web, such as this list of funding options provided by the EPA.

What If the School Water Does Have Elevated Lead Levels?

If your school finds that any water source that was tested has lead higher than the actionable limit established by the EPA, your school will take actions to reduce or eliminate the lead in the water. The specific steps a school will depend on the specific plumbing of the school and water use of the students.

In the short term, the school may decide to close certain water fountains or faucets if they believe it is only fountains or faucets that are lead contaminated. If a larger portion of the schools plumbing or water supply is believed to be the source, the school may take measures such as supplying bottled drinking water for students.

Longer-term solutions may include replacing pipes and fixtures with lead. This can be very costly for some schools that may have limited funding for building repairs.

My Child's School Has Elevated Lead Levels, How Can I Find Out If My Child's Health Has Been Affected?

Discuss any concerns you have about your child's lead exposure or water consumption with your child's pediatrician. Your doctor can determine which tests to give to find if your child has lead in their body.  

If your child is found to have elevated lead levels in their body, your child's doctor will let you know what you can do to reduce the lead level. This will reduce or prevent your child from experiencing any problems from lead in their body.

While news of lead in school water can be alarming to a parent, it is for the benefit of all children that issue of lead in school water has gained national attention. More schools are now monitoring for lead in water, catching problem pipes and fixtures faster and preventing exposure to children.

Sources:

"Lead." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 07 Sept. 2016. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

"Lead Poisoning: Signs & Symptoms." Public Health. Oregon Health Authority, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

"Testing Schools and Child Care Centers for Lead in the Drinking Water." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 09 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

  • Up Next