Toxic Lead: Watch Out for Schools

Lead testing by the District of Columbia, in recent years, showed that water dispensed by drinking-water fountains at many local schools had been carrying excessive concentrations of the toxic heavy metal. “And we showed that the lead was high with the knowledge of the schools and the [water] utility from 2004 to 2007,” says Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, an environmental engineer that focuses on plumbing issues.

LEADEN WATER? Fountains and faucets can dispense lead picked up from plumbing supply lines — and schools are especially vulnerable. RBFried/iStockphoto

Edwards initially turned up elevated lead levels in certain District schools around 2005, according to a Feb. 15, 2007, story in the Washington Post. It said he stumbled onto the test data through a Freedom of Information Act — or FOIA — request of water samples in the schools. According to the news account: “Officials conducting tests for D.C. schools ‘did not follow standard protocols [in the tests]. They used methods to make the lead look low when it wasn’t,’ Edwards said.”

Yesterday, Edwards noted that “Mayor [Adrian] Fenty, to his great credit, wants the lead-in-D.C.-schools problem exposed. So he established a crash program of several million dollars to go in and install filters throughout the schools. And when we subsequently checked,” Edwards says, his team “found the problem had been dramatically reduced, although some problems with lead remain.”

The travesty, Edwards points out, is that “controlling lead in schools right now is a voluntary program. There are no laws requiring that lead in a school’s drinking water be below any federal guideline.” What’s more, he adds, no law requires that once a school learns it has lead problems it must notify anyone about it — we’re talking about students, the public, even government agencies.

In fact, Edwards has collected lead-testing data from schools around the nation and “there’s no question that lead in schools is a big national issue —especially in some of the older urban cities that have this old plumbing infrastructure.”

You mean like Chicago, Boston and New York, I asked? “I won’t mention names,” he said, “but yes, it’s the big urban cities that are most likely to have issues with lead coming out some taps.”

In fact, Edwards argues: “Schools seem to be about the worst case for lead in water.” They can remain empty for long periods of time — days, weeks, even months on end. And the longer water makes contact with lead-tainted plumbing, the more toxic metal may leach out.

Concerned about the issue after what his team had learned first hand having looked at lead-leaching problems in the nation’s capital, Edwards says “we did several FOIA requests to kind of force the release of data from schools elsewhere. And we now have 10 case studies.”

Although the Environmental Protection Agency has an “action level” for lead in water of 20 parts per billion for schools, data from the FOIA requests showed drinking-water contamination in some of them exceeds hazardous waste levels — more than 5,000 ppb lead. The highest value Edwards turned up: 28,000 ppb.

How did he know what school systems to probe? Spies. “Someone would tell me a school had done sampling,” he says, and he’d petition a look at their data.

A primary goal of the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 was to identify and reduce lead in drinking water at schools and day-care centers. However, because few schools have money on hand to deal with lead contamination, Edwards says, most don’t test their water, figuring what they don’t know won’t cost them.

And among schools that have tested and turned up lead: They tend to tuck the data away and hope nobody asks about them, Edwards volunteers.

Well that’s hardly reassuring.

It looks like Edwards has turned up another costly infrastructure problem. I’d argue that it warrants funding through that pending federal economic-stimulus package at least as much as does installing new energy-conservation technologies in U.S. homes and federal buildings. Our children deserve protection from lead while they learn. And think how many Joe-the-Plumbers it would keep employed during the severe economic downturn in which America finds itself.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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