Schools struggle to get the lead out of drinking water

Schools struggle to get the lead out of drinking water

(Ind.) With students returning to the classroom this month, facility managers all over the country are scrambling to ensure drinking water systems are safe and to address any contamination.

Last week, officials in Indiana reported that nearly 1,000 public school buildings statewide had been tested under a voluntary program, and more than 60 percent had at least one fixture with high levels of lead.

The Hillsborough County School District in Tampa announced plans to collect samples from all of its 250 schools by the end of December, after news reports of high levels of the neurotoxin in some school sinks and fountains.

Meanwhile in Michigan, site of the country’s biggest drinking water contamination crisis, officials at Flint Community Schools said that they would continue to use bottled water for the coming school year—or until the city and public health regulators can agree that the municipal system is safe.

Typically, lead is a big problem for schools when entering the system through aging pipes, corroded service lines or faulty fittings and fixtures.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead in blood for children. Research shows that the metal is especially harmful to young children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing, and elevated levels can lead to behavioral problems, learning disabilities and other lifelong ill effects.

The 2016 disaster in Flint was a wake-up call to school districts all over the U.S., but getting all the testing done that might be needed has proved challenging—even in states that have set aside funds specifically to help pay for the effort.

In California, for instance, two-thirds of the state’s 1,026 school districts have not taken advantage of a free testing program funded by the Legislature, according to a report earlier this month by the San Francisco Chronicle.

“It is disappointing to see that a large number of districts have yet to take advantage of this program,” Troy Flint of the California School Boards Association, told the Chronicle.

A similar program in Indiana began last spring with the goal of identifying any fixture that produces water with lead content in excess of the federal health standard of 15 parts per billion.

Warrick County Schools, located in the southwestern part of the state, found 11 schools with at least one fixture that needed attention.

“We didn’t see any downside to it,” Warrick’s superintendent told the Indianapolis Star. “You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know you have a problem.”

In Tampa’s Hillsborough School District, water evaluation became the focus of public scrutiny after disclosure that the testing of school systems wouldn’t be completed until late 2020.

Part of the problem, according to the Tampa Bay Times, was the workload on the district’s staff to test the water. The district has since taken steps to hire outside samplers to speed up the process. more