Lead in School Drinking Water: How Can Lawmakers Set State Agencies & Schools up for Success?
Posted on September 9, 2019 Erica Walker
In January, Tennessee joined 14 other states by requiring public school districts to test drinking water sources for lead. Results are starting to roll in and nearly 100 schools tested above 20 ppb to date. These numbers are not surprising given that over 60% of tested schools in Indiana and Massachusetts tested up above 15 ppb, the average school was constructed in 1957, and plumbing companies were allowed to include up to 8% lead their products until 2014.
Here is what the Tennessee law requires:
- Each local board of education must develop its own lead testing policy
- Lead testing in all schools built before January 1, 1998
- Re-testing within 90 days of any corrective action
- Annual testing until fixtures test below 20 ppb
- Notification to state agencies with 24 hours
- Notification to parents within 5 days of testing if results are above 20 ppb
We applaud any state tackling this issue with legislation because the only way to ensure all facilities are tested is to make it a requirement and to provide assistance. Many nuances happen during the rule-making process and should be left in the hands of agency experts empowered by law and additional funding, but here are some ways we think lawmakers can set state agencies, schools and childcare facilities up for success.
Set remediation ranges, not arbitrary thresholds
As we are often reminded, there is no safe level of lead and even frequent low concentrations can threaten children’s health. For this reason, the EPA removed its remediation threshold (20 ppb) from the 3 T’s guidance document for school and childcare facility testing. Unfortunately, this puts states, school districts and childcare facilities in the difficult position of having to set their own limits, which has resulted in a range of remediation thresholds that are either practically too low (2 ppb in Illinois) or too high (20 ppb in Tennessee) without substantial guidance from state agencies.
To anyone outside of the water sector, these limits will be interpreted as health standards, which may leave the false impression that 14.9 ppb or 19.9 ppb is safe. The truth is that lead concentrations in water will always be highly variable and samples from the same faucet may contain five different concentrations on five different days. Laws and regulations should reflect current science by including requirements for a range of concentrations which will encourage schools to remove lead sources over time. Test results should ideally provide facility staff with the information they need to answer the most essential question: where are lead sources present within the building?
For the time being, remediation triggers (with the exception of re-testing requirements) should not go below 5 ppb, which is the federal lead standard for bottled water. Anything lower is both confusing and impossible to enforce as bottled water is often listed as an acceptable temporary remediation strategy and no one can guarantee it will be better than school drinking water at low remediation thresholds – unless the state plans to ask facilities to test their bottled water.
Do not perpetuate the myth that only “older” building will have problems
Regulations in 1986 and 1998 decreased the amount of lead allowed in fixtures schools, childcare facilities and homeowners purchased but up until 2014, companies were able to put up to 8% lead in “lead free” plumbing products. Not surprisingly, we found building age was not a good predictor of lead exceedances in one state-wide testing program. Many state laws set building age thresholds on testing requirements, which gives the false sense that “newer” buildings will not contain lead in plumbing and interferes with collecting accurate baseline data. If anything, building age should be used to prioritize funding or sequence testing, but not to allow facilities to opt out.
Provide agencies and schools with the funds they need
New lead testing programs are a substantial effort for state drinking water agencies, and funding for these entities has remained stagnant. Schools and childcare facilities are not water quality experts and may lack the resources to test for and fix lead problems. The goals of these laws are put in jeopardy when facilities are left to devise their own protocols, choose their own labs, interpret results, select the best remediation strategy, and communicate with the public without technical and financial assistance.
Write transparency requirements into the law
Most state laws require facilities to notify state agencies and the community when “high” lead levels are found but do not specify what notifications should include. Without guidance, many facilities (logically) share lengthy lab reports which leaves parents feeling confused and frustrated. Ideally, public notification would specify: 1. where problems were found 2. What steps are being taken and 3. where the community can get more information.
Any state offering voluntary support or setting mandatory testing requirements is ahead of the game, but there are important steps lawmakers can take to protect children’s health and make the most of public and private resources. Lead testing requirements for schools and childcare facilities should be constructed in a way that:
1. Sets facilities up to make informed decisions about how to remove lead in their buildings effectively and efficiently.
2. Reduces confusion about requirements and solutions and 3. Provides ongoing financial and technical support so that the spirit of law is actually carried out.