Connecting Waterpeople

Give kids lead-free drinking water

About the blog

Joan Leary Matthews
Director, Urban Water Management & Senior Attorney. People & Communities Program. Natural Resources Defense Council.

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  • Give kids lead-free drinking water

Why lead needs to be removed from school drinking water

With a lot of attention directed toward the removal of lead service lines that bring water into residences, we must not forget that there is another source of lead in drinking water – schools and childcare centers. Outside of the home, children spend most of their time at school or in child care. Staff spend just as many hours there and are exposed to the same lead hazards. Women make up a majority of staff at schools and child-care facilities, and pregnant staff place their fetuses at risk when they drink water that contains lead. 

The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization all state that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead is a poisonous heavy metal that can affect almost every organ and system in the human body, often irreversibly. Children and fetuses are particularly vulnerable. Even at very low levels once considered safe, lead can cause serious, irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems of babies and young children. Lead can decrease a child’s cognitive capacity, cause behavior problems, and limit the ability to concentrate—all of which, in turn, affect the ability to learn in school. Lead can cross the placental barrier of a pregnant woman into the womb and harm the fetus.

Lead is present in school drinking water

Older plumbing fixtures, fittings, pipes, and solder contain high amounts of lead, which can leach into drinking water. Troublingly, many schools and day-care facilities are housed in buildings that contain old plumbing.

Lead is present in unfiltered drinking water; filtration removes lead if the filter is certified and properly installed and maintained

Even new plumbing is not completely lead free. Prior to 1986, there were no federal restrictions on lead content in plumbing products. In 1986 Congress amended the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, defining “lead free” to mean that solder and flux could contain no more than 0.2 percent lead, and plumbing pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures could contain no more than 8 percent lead. Congress amended the law again in 2011 (effective in 2014) by lowering the maximum lead content of the latter components from 8 percent to a weighted average of 0.25 percent. Congress kept the 0.2 percent limit on solder and flux.

The solution: “Filter first, then test”

The best way for a school to protect children from lead in drinking water is to “Filter First, Then Test.” Testing programs around the country demonstrate that lead is prevalent in drinking water in schools, and that the levels can change significantly from day to day. In other words, we know that lead is present in unfiltered drinking water. We also know that filtration effectively removes lead when the filter is certified by NSF International or the Water Quality Association and is properly installed and maintained.

There is no benefit to waiting for a school to test its drinking water for lead – that’s a waste of money. Schools should immediately install filters at school kitchen faucets and designated hydration stations, which is a bottle filling water fountain (1 station per 100 students/staff). Testing would only need to be conducted at these drinking water outlets to ensure that the filters are working properly. This is much smarter than embarking on a lengthy testing process that will only prove what we already know to be true. The District of Columbia has already taken the necessary step to require filtration first and then testing. In fact, NRDC drafted model legislation based on the Filter First approach; Filter First bills have been introduced in Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado. Other cities and states should follow suit with the sequence that best protects our children – Filter First, Then Test. Let’s protect children and school staff not only in their homes, but in their schools, too.

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