Along with their backpacks and lunches, Kay Slater makes sure her three school-age children leave home every morning with a full water bottle. The Littleton resident is concerned that lead might be lurking in their schools’ drinking water.
Slater learned of the risk when she volunteered on a committee that successfully lobbied for a 2018 bond measure for infrastructure upgrades at Jefferson County (JeffCo) Public Schools. The campaign gave her an inside look at aging plumbing systems in district facilities that could include lead service lines, fixtures, solder and fittings.
“Schools don’t have to test for lead unless their water is considered part of a public water source, which I found incredibly alarming,” said Slater. “I absolutely worry about it.”
In doing more research, the mom of five found JeffCo sampled 147 schools in 2016 after officials discovered lead in water in a building the district had sold. About 568 samples, or 8% of the 7,648 taken, came back with lead levels above the federal standard used to evaluate community-level exposure. For these, the district replaced faucets and plumbing lines, installed water-bottle filling stations and retested, wrote Kim MacDonnell, environmental services director, in an email. Those water sources that still tested high were either turned off or used for hand-washing only, she added.
The effort didn’t solve the problem, because federal standards for the amount of lead considered permissible in drinking water keep shifting downward to be more in line with physician recommendations. (Permissible is not the same as safe; the Environmental Protection Agency has long stated that “there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood.”) At the time JeffCo originally tested its facilities, Environmental Protection Agency standards for lead in school drinking water allowed 20 parts per billion. The district relied on a lower standard of 15 parts per billion set in a federal rule. One part per billion is equivalent to a single drop of water in 55,000 gallons of water—or the amount needed to fill a 25-by-50-foot pool with an average depth of six feet.
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering revising standards to 10 parts per billion. JeffCo, which tests drinking water in facilities on a rotating basis each year, will contemplate incorporating the change into its sampling program this spring, MacDonnell wrote.
Physicians and public health experts agree a 10 parts per billion baseline is still too high. Exposing kids to any lead at all puts them at risk of learning, behavioral and medical complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Scientists have linked even low levels of lead exposure to damage to the nervous system, shorter stature and impaired hearing. Children are particularly vulnerable because effects occur at lower lead concentration levels than those experienced by adults. Kids can be exposed to lead in paint, dust, soil, air and food, as well as drinking water.
The persistent and complex problem of lead exposure for young children in Colorado was underscored by a September 2021 study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Researchers found that about 72% of children under six in Colorado have detectable levels of lead in their blood, higher than the national average of 51%.
Many states do not require lead testing in school districts that operate public schools not considered attached to public water systems—a total of about 98,000 schools. The heavy metal doesn’t come in water provided by municipal sources; instead, it leaches into the system from service lines and fixtures, along with solder and fittings manufactured with lead. Most buildings constructed between 1940 and the early 1980s receive water from lead pipes. A 1986 federal law banned the heavy metal in plumbing. Even so, researchers found that some recently manufactured “lead free” faucets can cause contamination.
These longstanding infrastructure issues contribute to the fact that more than 24 million children risk losing IQ points due to low levels of lead exposure.
“The number of kids that are being exposed to lead through drinking water is just heartbreaking,” said Cori Bell, a water advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “When states do require testing, you find there is a problem.”
One fountain at a Cleveland Montessori school had dangerously high levels of 1,560 parts per billion; a bathroom sink at a nearby school had levels nearly triple that. Tests at a school in the Chicago suburbs uncovered lead-water concentrations at 212 times the federal standard. In Arizona, about half of the 13,380 school taps tested contained lead.
The 2015 water crisis in Flint, Mich. spurred a wave of awareness about this issue. Even so, most districts lacked resources to act. An absence of data about how many schools are impacted made it difficult for advocates to persuade legislators and parents that there was a problem.
That’s about to change. States are poised to use millions of dollars from the federal American Relief Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill to conduct testing in schools and replace lead fixtures and service lines.
“It’s beyond historic,” said Danny Katz, executive director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. “We really haven’t had any dollars and now we have so many flowing in—now is our chance to make sure we are focusing on prevention.”
There are competing visions between advocates and state water managers about how to best address lead in school drinking water, Katz said. Advocates want districts to place filters on drinking fountains and taps used for cooking, or replace them with hydration stations. This approach ensures that all lead is filtered out, they say, since newer fixtures sometimes contain the heavy metal as well. State officials suggest testing and replacing plumbing as necessary, citing additional costs to replace filters.
Several Colorado state lawmakers favor a filter-first approach in a bill they plan to introduce this spring that would use $26.7 million in federal dollars in the first year to help K-12 schools and child care centers inventory and map their water taps. Filters would be installed on those that are used for drinking water or cooking. These systems would be tested twice a year and the filters replaced as needed. About $12.7 million would be allocated annually starting in the second year for such parts.
“We need to pass this bill this year to ensure we get access to this funding,” said Sen. Faith Winter, one of the bill sponsors, during a Jan. 31 virtual news conference. “This action is much more affordable than just doing testing.”
The measure, which had yet to be formally introduced as of the first week of March, will join more than 500 lead mitigation bills introduced in states during the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions. Many focused on lead in schools and child care facilities, particularly testing and notification, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
Until now, testing drinking water for lead in Colorado schools varied from district to district. The scope of the problem is difficult to define, given the lack of data from many communities. It came into sharper focus over the last three years, when the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) awarded $248,215 in grant money allocated by state lawmakers to schools to conduct research.
Interest was sparse. The program expended 27% of the funds set aside for the effort. Only 67 schools out of 2,200 that were eligible tested their water.
“We saw a fairly low participation rate for whatever reason. I don’t know that it was a Colorado issue—in talking with colleagues nationwide, they saw rates lower than we all expected,” said Michael Beck, a section manager for community development and partnership at CDPHE.
Money wasn’t available in Colorado to help schools with replacing fixtures, which were the primary cause of higher levels of the heavy metal, Beck added, a factor that likely caused hesitation by districts to apply for the grants.
Although about 4% of the 3,877 fixtures sampled tested above the standard of 15 parts per billion, health advocates pointed out that this level of lead is still not safe.
“I was curious if we looked at lower levels what would we find,” said Bell, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, adding that about one out of four samples were over a three parts per billion threshold: “While it’s a small data set, that is concerning.”
Even veteran water managers in the state’s K-12 systems were surprised by the results they received from labs they paid to sample their taps with state grant money. In Durango School District 9-R, drinking water operator Deb Hall routinely tests for lead at three schools considered to have their own water systems. Up until the last few years, she didn’t have the resources to test the district’s other facilities. Using state grant money, she sampled systems in elementary and middle schools.
“We didn’t think we would have any fixtures test high for lead, and we did and we were surprised,” Hall recalled, adding that the district installed filters and water bottle fillers, replaced some fixtures, and continues to test.
CDPHE hopes to garner more participation from K-12 schools in a second program that will rely on a $1 million grant from the federal Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. Districts and child care centers are eligible to apply.
Meanwhile, concerned parents say they will continue to remind their children to bring water with them to class each day to help hedge against lead exposure.
“We know it’s going to be an ongoing issue, because of the age of our school buildings,” said Slater, the mom of three children in JeffCo K-12 schools. “I make sure in the morning that the kids have their water bottles and they are full, and that when they leave school they bring them home so we can refill them for when they go back.”