Massachusetts is winding down a statewide initiative to test public school drinking water for lead and copper. Approximately 40 percent of tested school buildings exceeded the “action level” of 15 parts per billion for lead only, while 3 percent exceeded the action level for copper only.
Kitchen kettles and classroom faucets were the fixtures most likely to exceed action levels, while water fountains, water bottle filling stations, nurses’ sinks, and bathroom faucets were less likely to exceed action levels.
Nearly 1,000 schools have gone through the voluntary testing program, funded two and a half years ago with $2.75 million from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust. The program recently earned the Children’s Health Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and was overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection with assistance from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
MassDEP published the final report of the Massachusetts Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water in May 2017.
Typically, a city or town’s public water system delivers water that meets all federal and state health standards for lead, so lead found in drinking water at public schools is due to the plumbing in the facility itself.
Schools have an intermittent water use pattern, and as a result, they can have elevated lead concentrations because the potential for lead to leach into water can increase the longer the water remains in contact with lead in plumbing.
In 2015, the discovery of toxic levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, raised national awareness about lead’s health risks. The World Health Organization describes lead as “a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elevated blood lead levels have been linked to anemia, kidney and brain damage, learning disabilities, and decreased growth. Children under age 6 are most at-risk. Children with lead poisoning can be treated, but the damage is often irreversible.
Lead Contamination Control Act
In 1988, Congress passed the Lead Contamination Control Act, established under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, to reduce lead in the drinking water of schools (K-12) and child care facilities. The act applies to facilities that are on a municipal water supply as well as facilities that have their own water source (such as a well, and thus are regulated by MassDEP as a Public Water System).
MassDEP is responsible for managing the Lead Contamination Control Act in Massachusetts. Partners include the Department of Public Health, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Department of Early Education and Care, and the U.S. EPA.
Remediation of lead in school drinking water is not a simple, one-step solution. Plumbing lines and fixtures that contain lead must be removed. The water that schoolchildren drink every day should be tested on a regular schedule in order to ensure their safety.
The U.S. EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule does not mandate that public schools test drinking water for lead levels. Only six states in the country mandate lead testing in public schools, and Massachusetts is not one of them.
Lead and Copper Rule regulations require that public water supplies test just two water sources in two schools every testing cycle, but cities and towns are strongly advised to exceed these Public Water System requirements.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 43 percent of school districts surveyed nationwide had tested for lead in 2016 or 2017. Of those, about 37 percent showed elevated lead in drinking water, as defined by the districts. About 41 percent of school districts hadn’t tested for lead in the 12 months before completing the survey, and 16 percent said they didn’t know if they had tested.
Despite budget constraints, many towns throughout Massachusetts have been thorough and diligent in testing for lead in school drinking water.
“Town and city LCCA programs are all voluntary,” said Erik Mysliwy, water quality and safety administrator for the town of Reading. “There are no regulations via MassDEP or the EPA that bind or move municipalities or public water systems into action to address lead in school drinking water.
“Reading went in fully with a desire to institute an LCCA program in the best interests of our residents and the students in Reading public schools. At first, any large project or task can be overwhelming, but we wanted to know what was in our schools’ drinking water and quickly address any issues found.”
The key to success, Mysliwy added, is to have town management and the facilities, water and school departments all on board and connected, with a clear delineation of responsibilities, during the entire planning, testing and remediation process.
Reading started by developing a Lead Contamination Control Act plan, testing, and then addressing the problems found. As a result, one of its schools needed to have bottled water stations for drinking water and its tap water designated for hand washing only – not an ideal solution, but typical of what many Massachusetts communities face with schools built in the 1950s to 1970s.
LCCA program management
MassDEP is working to ensure that adequate funding and technical assistance is provided to public schools and public early education and child care facilities to sample drinking water for lead and copper.
A wealth of information about testing for lead in school drinking water, including the LCCA Program Management tool and water sampling results by city/town, can be found at www.mass.gov/assistance-program-for-lead-in-school-drinking-water.
In addition, many Massachusetts cities and towns have shared their plans, protocols, testing results and solutions on their websites.