It’s been decades since lead was first identified as a toxin harmful to the neurological development of young children. However, there are no federal laws that require schools, child care facilities or early education programs to test their drinking water for lead or copper.
That may soon change.
A proposed update to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, now in the final stages of review, would require community water systems to test for lead in drinking water at 20% of K-12 schools and licensed child cares in their service area every year.
Results from the sample and explanations and suggestions regarding the results would be provided to each child-centered facility tested in addition to local or state health departments, according to the proposed rule. Facilities built after January 1, 2014 would be excluded from the testing requirement.
If given final approval, it would be the first substantive change to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule since 1991, and it has the potential to reduce the number of children exposed and potentially harmed by drinking contaminated water.
“We don’t want anyone exposed to lead, but this is a very important population,” said Lindsay McCormick, program manager of chemicals and health at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Developmental delay risks
Of all the environmental hazards young children could be exposed to, ingesting lead in drinking water or paint is one of the most concerning for pediatricians, parents and early childhood educators.
Lead exposure can be harmful to people of any age, but young children who ingest lead are at risk of developmental delays and disabilities including longer-term impacts that can adversely affect learning, speech development and attention and behavior. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no safe lead levels in young children’s blood have been identified.
Regions across the country that have higher risks to lead exposure because of the prevalence of older buildings with old water pipes, fixtures and lead-based paint may have specific pediatric testing recommendations for lead exposure in young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doctors perform risk assessments for lead exposure in all young children several times before a child’s sixth birthday. Lead in water is difficult to see, smell and taste, according to the CDC.
Early childhood education specialists also are addressing the developmental challenges faced by infants and toddlers exposed to lead. Several states allow for automatic eligibility for Part C early intervention services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act if a certain level of lead is detected in a child’s blood stream, according to a 2017 survey of state Part C coordinators conducted by the Infant and Toddler Coordinators Association, a member organization of Part C state coordinators.
Children ages birth through 2 years old, whose developmental delays or disabilities persist as they grow older and who may need special education services, could potentially qualify for IDEA’s Part B program, which serves preschool and school-aged children.
In the survey provided by ITCA’s Executive Director Maureen Greer, state Part C coordinators said even if lead levels in a child’s bloodstream aren’t a factor for automatic eligibility, a documented risk of lead exposure or evidence of developmental delays could trigger consideration for early intervention services and supports, such as speech therapy.
“I think there is enough research about the long-term impacts on cognitive skills and abilities,” Greer said. “It’s an area where states look at for a population that needs to be served.”
Greer added, “It’s a really important issue. We all saw what happened in Michigan.”
In August, a landmark settlement was reached between plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Education and Flint, Michigan’s Genesee Intermediate School District and Flint Community Schools as a result of high levels of lead found in the community water system in 2014.
The settlement requires the state and local education systems to provide funding and expanded services for special education programs, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, whose attorneys represented students in the complaint.
Several states are regularly testing drinking sources in facilities with children, and there are programs to support the voluntary testing of water in schools. For example, EPA officials told researchers with the Government Accountability Office that, as of May, at least 11 states and the District of Columbia require water testing in child care facilities.
Another GAO report from 2017 said the EPA reported at least eight states required school districts to test for lead in drinking water. An additional 13 states offered funding or other incentives for the voluntary testing of drinking water in schools, the report said.
Ideally, efforts to reduce young children’s exposure to lead would be a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder effort, according to a federal action plan from the 2018 President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children.
Partnerships between state agencies and local school, health and utility organizations in Indiana have helped the state test drinking water supplies in more than half of its schools beginning in 2017, as well as remove or replace fixtures and take other remediation approaches, said Jim McGoff, chief operating officer and director of environmental programs with the Indiana Finance Authority.
The current program, launched in 2019, is focused on younger-aged school children and child care facilities; however, all public schools are eligible as funding remains available. The state is using the EPA’s Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act Grant for this second program, which will only fund the testing of the drinking water and not repairs or remediation efforts.
“We believe these programs can be a model for other states that are considering a testing a program because it’s proactive in the absence of policy, leverages available federal and state funding resources specific to water-quality improvements, and provides assistance to schools via resources and guidance to help them participate in testing and implement remediation when applicable,” said McGoff in an email.
Governments and school districts also have taken steps to remove toxins in drinking water in schools and child care facilities. For example, New York City and 11 states require licensed child care businesses to regularly test their drinking water for lead, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
Anything related to the safety and health of our students is of utmost importance to us.
Chief operations officer, Baltimore City Public Schools
The Thompson School District in Loveland, Colorado, partnered with the city of Loveland Water Quality Laboratory and Colorado State University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to sample water sources from 2,645 fixtures across 34 locations in the district from March 2018 to April 2019. It received support from the EPA’s 3T’s —Training, Testing and Taking Action program, which encourages voluntary efforts to minimize lead in drinking water at schools and child care centers.
The samples allowed the district to create a baseline for continued monitoring of fixtures to detect the absence or presence and concentration of lead in drinking water supplies.
“The testing was critical to help identify which fixture components needed to be replaced or retrofitted with filtration units to maintain healthy drinking water supplies for our primary and secondary locations,” said Jess Arnold, the district’s environmental specialist, in an email. Arnold also said the partnerships were critical for the management of the project, and that because of the large amount of data collected, having a detailed sampling plan was essential.
On the East Coast, Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland shut down all the drinking fountains in more than 100 older schools and facilities more than 10 years ago when testing indicated high levels of lead. Drinking water is now being provided through water dispensers, which cost the district $834,000 this year, said Lynette Washington, the district’s chief operations officer.
The long-term plan is to update the old water fixtures and plumbing when buildings are scheduled for renovations, Washington said, adding drinking water sources in newer schools undergo regular testing as required by the state.
“Anything related to the safety and health of our students is of utmost importance to us,” Washington said.
Still, the effort of maintaining safe drinking water sources, including the testing of water filtration systems in newer buildings is costly, Washington said. The district has budgeted $15,000 for the water filtration tests this year, according to Washington.
Cost, testing limitation concerns
According to the EPA, as reported by the GAO's 2020 report, the cost of testing a typical child care facility could be a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, depending on how many buildings and fixtures need to be assessed. Repairs or replacements of lead fixtures, pipes and service lines can also get expensive depending on the scope of the work.
The report also raised concerns that the prolonged school shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic could cause more lead to leach into water pipes feeding into those buildings.
The EPA has a toolkit to help schools, child care facilities and early childhood education programs identify potential funding sources for the water quality measures. Some suggested funding sources include grants, loans and the issuance of bonds. Additionally, the agency announced earlier this year that it is providing $26 million in grants for states, territories and tribes to test for lead in schools and child care facilities in low-income and disadvantaged communities.
The median amount spent by school districts to test for lead in school drinking water is dependent on the number of schools in which tests were conducted, the 2017 GAO report said. For example, its research found that a rural district where three schools were housed in one building spent $180 testing all eight fixtures, whereas a large urban district spent $2.1 million to test 11,000 fixtures in 500 schools.
The GAO report also said most schools and districts are responsible for the cost of remediation, but some states provide financial assistance for that work.
Although lead testing and remediation can get costly, the payoff is significant when the potential reduction in damage to children’s developing brains and bodies is considered, said EDF’s McCormick.
The proposed Lead and Copper Rule received nearly 80,000 public comments, according to Regulations.gov. Several organizations and agencies have voiced support for the changes, but some say the rule doesn't go far enough to remove all the dangers of contaminated drinking water — particularly for young children.
For example, the proposed rule requires that water samples are drawn from only five drinking outlets in each school and two in each child care center, McCormick said. That could mean contaminated water sources could go undetected even if the community utility has met the requirement for school and child care-based testing under the rule.
“There’s a risk of a false sense of security,” she said. “That’s what I worry about.”
Additionally, there’s no requirement that the problematic faucets and service lines be upgraded, McCormick said. “Until we get all the lead out, it will be a challenge,” she said.