9 places in the US where kids can’t safely drink the water at school

Hilary Brueck Mar. 23, 2019, 9:23 AM

Lead is a neurotoxin that's especially harmful to young, developing brains.

  • But more than half of US schools haven't had their taps tested for lead.

  • At schools that have been tested, more than a third of the taps were contaminated. Schools in cities like Portland, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have water that has tested positive for lead.

No one should be drinking lead. The neurotoxin can cause brain damage and lower a person's IQ.

But unless your taps have been tested recently, you can't know for sure that you're not consuming the poisonous metal in concentrations that could hurt your health.

Generally, tap water from municipal pipes in the US is extremely safe to drink, and is even subject to more stringent standards than bottled water. But recently, kids across the country have found out that the water in their schools is contaminated with lead. A 2019 Harvard study looked at water tests from 10,888 schools in 12 states, and found that nearly half of the schools (44%) had at least one water sample with worrisome lead concentrations.

In 2018, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO)reported that of all the US public schools that had tested their water in the previous two years and reported the results, more than a third (37%) found elevated levels of lead. But perhaps even more worrisome: less than half (43%) of schools had tested for lead at all over the last couple of years. At least 10 US states and the District of Columbia mandate lead testing in schools, but in the rest, it's done on a voluntary basis or not at all.

Jacqueline Nowicki, who works on education policy at the US GAO, estimates there are still close to 15 million US students who don't know whether their water is safe to drink at school.

This is troubling because lead is especially harmful to kids' young, developing brains.

"In children, there is no identified threshold or 'safe' blood lead level below which no risk of poor developmental or intellectual function is expected,' according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Lead exposure can negatively impact a child's ability to concentrateand learn for years.

Here are nine surprising places around the US where the tap water in schools has tested positive for lead:

As recently as 2018, some Los Angeles schools were reportedly still dealing with dangerous amounts of lead in their water.

Plumbers have been repairing fountains in the Los Angeles public schools, the second largest school district in the country, for years.

But EdSource reported that as of 2018, some schools were still dealing with concentrations of lead in their water that were well above state and federal limits.

Under a new state law, all California public schools will have to test their taps before July 2019.

Maine has some of the most rampant lead problems in the country when it comes to schools and day-care centers.

Dina Spector/Business Insider

According to a 2016 nationwide drinking water analysis from USA Today, "one water sample at a Maine elementary school was 41 times higher" than the EPA action level of a 15-part-per-billion lead threshold.

High lead levels were recorded at other fountains and faucets in at least 25 different facilities in the state.

This year, Maine lawmakers are considering new legislation that would require schools to do more testing, as the Portland Press Herland reported in February.

More than 50 Detroit public schools have found out that their drinking water is contaminated with high levels of lead, copper, or both.

The problem is widespread in the Motor City. In September, the superintendent turned off the taps at all Detroit schools and dispatched coolers and bottled water across the city. This cost $200,000 for the first two-month supply, as Crain's Detroit Business reported.

Within weeks, donations began pouring in to help cover the bulk of the $3 million cost of new hydration stations for schools, according to an October report from the Detroit Free Press.

More than half of the Atlanta public schools that did tests in 2016 showed elevated levels of lead in the water.

Some schools had concentrations of lead "as high as 15 times the federal limit for water systems," the Atlanta Journal Constitutionreported.

Portland schools only recently re-opened their taps, following 2016 test results that showed most of the water kids were drinking at school was tainted with lead.

Years of bad test results surfaced in 2016, and spurred the city to undertake a two-year-long effort to replace old fixtures and re-test the water.

In June 2018, school district officials announced that nearly all the bad fixtures had been replaced and that the water at school would be safe to drink again, as The Oregonian reported.

At least four schools in Polk County, Florida were found to have high lead levels.

Some students in Polk County were served bottled water during this school year.

Three drinking fountains on Chicago's South Side tested positive for high levels of lead in 2016.

Kids in Chicago public schools

Joshua Lott for the Washington Post

After those results came to light, one school started offering free blood testing to kids, as the Chicago Tribune reported.

In nearby Hammond, Indiana, lead-contaminated water was found in nine schools last August.

If a tap has been sitting idle for a while, as school faucets often do over summer break, it can help to run it cold for 1-2 minutes before taking a sip.

In 2016, high levels of lead were also found in 30 different Newark public schools.

After the discovery, more than 1,000 Newark schoolkids had their blood-lead levels tested. Fortunately, only a handful of the tests came back with what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers worrisome, as The New York Times reported.

But technically, there is no such thing as a safe level of lead for people to be drinking. Lead can cause brain damage and make it hard for students to concentrate and learn at school.

At least two dozen schools in the Baltimore, Maryland region were found to have elevated lead levels in their water.

Baltimore Design School

A new state law in Maryland requires water testing in schools — which is how the elevated lead levels were discovered in the Baltimore area, as the Baltimore Sun reported in 2018. More than 600 other schools across the state have asked for more time to perform their tests.

The reason tap water can be contaminated with lead is simple: There's no US regulation that requires schools to test for lead.

Flint residents Gladyes Williamson (C) holds a bottle full of contaminated water, and a clump of her hair, alongside Jessica Owens (R), holding a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference on the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a national rule about lead and copper concentrations in water that is designed to keep drinking water safe. But the regulation doesn't require testing of every tap.

"That's really the only safe drinking water rule we have right now that regulates lead in water," Megan Glover, co-founder of 120 Water Audit, told Business Insider.

Her company has tested the water at 4,000 day-cares and schools across the US.

"We tell our clients when we work with them: You should expect that over half, actually 65% of your facilities, are going to have an exceedance," Glover said.

However, the US has taken regulatory steps to improve public health and get rid of lead before. The phase-out of leaded gasoline and paint in the 1970s led to a measurable brainpower boost in kids: As blood-lead levels dropped, IQs went up between 2.2% and 4.7%.

Here's what you can do if you're worried about lead.

If you're worried about the drinking water at a particular school, check to see if your city issues a report. Schools in New York and DC, for example, have information about their lead testing available online.

There's also an interactive map from the National Drinking Water Alliance that tracks media reports of contaminated water.

Twenty-four states also mandate, or are considering mandating, some school water testing. Some schools are already making changes, installing new water fountains and bottle-filling stations for students that include lead-reducing filters.


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