Lead in School Water: Less Than Half the States Test for It, and Fewer Require It

Federal regulations neither require schools to test their water nor have a single health standard for drinking water. The resulting patchwork of state policies can have a big impact on how -- and whether -- they respond to lead found in water.
by | January 9, 2019 AT 1:21 PM
An employee collects a water sample from a classroom sink for lead testing. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

SPEED READ:

  • Only 24 states and the District of Columbia require schools to test water for lead or have programs to conduct that testing, according to a report from Harvard University and the University of California. 
  • State water testing policies lack uniformity, including regarding how much lead triggers a response.
  • Even among federal agencies, there are different thresholds for how much lead is acceptable in drinking water.
  • The EPA is currently considering a national standard in its revised Lead and Copper Rule.
 

Five years after the Flint water crisis reminded Americans about the danger of lead in drinking water, nearly half of U.S. students are attending schools in states that don’t have programs or requirements to test tap water in schools, according to a new report.

And the 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, that do require testing for lead or have programs to conduct that testing lack uniformity in how they go about it, researchers from Harvard University and the University of California pointed out in the report, released Wednesday. Only seven states and D.C. require water tests in schools; in the other 17 states with programs, participation is voluntary.

State protocols vary widely on basic features, such as how much lead in the water triggers a state response, how the tests are conducted, how the testing data is maintained and whether the state pays any of the testing costs.

The patchwork of policies can have a big impact on how -- and whether -- schools respond to lead found in their water. For example, schools that tested the water of multiple taps were more likely to find elevated lead levels, but not all states that require lead tests require multiple taps to be tested.

What’s more, 44 percent of schools reported lead levels higher than their state threshold for action. Meanwhile, if all of them adopted the same threshold that applies to bottled water, “there could be more than a doubling in the proportion of schools that would need to take steps in order to reduce the lead in their drinking water.”

 

Different Drinking Water Standards, Even at the Federal Level

Angie Cradock, a Harvard researcher and one of the authors of the report, says the varying ways in which states handle school lead tests reflect the many different standards used by the federal government and scientists when it comes to lead in water.

On the one hand, scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agree that no amount of lead is safe for people to ingest. Lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. It can damage the brain, red blood cells and kidneys, and can cause lifelong developmental problems.

But different federal agencies use different lead thresholds.

For example, the Food and Drug Administration does not allow bottled water to have more than 5 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. But the EPA only requires municipal water systems to alert their customers if samples exceed 15 ppb. In 2006, the EPA recommended a threshold of 20 ppb for its voluntary school testing program. States have generally adopted one of those three levels in their testing laws.

“Schools or states would need more research in order to have an overarching standard that they could all use,” says Cradock, who is also the deputy director of the Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.'

 

Is a National Standard for Lead in Water Near?

The EPA is currently considering a national standard as it makes its long-awaited revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, which sets regulations for water utilities.

In 1988, Congress actually required states to come up with a plan for eliminating lead in schools and day-care centers. But a federal appeals court struck down that law in 1996, ruling that it violated the 10th Amendment because it didn’t give states a choice in whether to enforce the federal law.

The 2014 Flint water crisis, however, spurred states to take action on their own. Between the summers of 2016 and 2018, 15 states and the District of Columbia passed laws governing lead testing for school tap water.

“The crisis in Flint highlighted for legislators and advocates the gap in the regulation of our water supply, especially in schools,” says Anisa Heming, the director for the Center for Green Schools, which has also studied state policies on testing water for lead in schools.

The one thing that the policies do have in common is that they are trying to fill a void in federal water regulations, which don't specifically require schools to be tested, says Heming.

“The result of the existing federal regulatory framework is that without state action -- whether administrative or legislative -- many school outlets will not be tested for lead,” a recent report by the Center for Green Schools explained. “Without identifying and addressing elevated levels that may be present in schools, any exposure of students and staff to lead will continue unabated.”

 

Comparing State Lead Testing Laws

There is one benefit to having states take so many different approaches, Heming says: It is easier for researchers and advocates to figure out which ones work better than others.

So far, Heming says, the laws in California and New York appear to be promising.

Both of those states have already released data from their tests. They both require schools to be tested, include enforcement measures, provide clear guidance for how the testing should be conducted and specify which agencies are responsible for which tasks.

California also requires local water utilities to conduct the tests, Heming says. That approach ensures that schools don't have to use state funds to test their water. The schools need that money to fix up their own buildings, which are often the source of lead in their drinking water, rather than just conduct tests, she says.

Cradock, the Harvard researcher, stresses that states have a long way to go in developing their school water policies.

“The overarching story is that only half the states had a program to test school water for lead,” Cradock says. “I hope that the report will drive further states to adopt lead testing, so they could monitor quality of drinking water in schools. All kids should have access to quality drinking water in schools.”