By Kara Cook-Schultz, U.S. PIRG
School is nearly out for the summer.
The season is an occasion for long days at the beach, family vacations and backyard barbecues. It’s also an opportunity for school districts across the country to replace fixtures and pipes that contain the potent neurotoxin lead.
In 2015, Americans watched in horror as residents of Flint, Michigan, turned on their faucets before news cameras, showing streams of jaundiced water teeming with bacteria and levels of lead high enough to classify it as hazardous waste.
Texas Army National Guard members load bottled water into trucks to bring to Flint, Michigan, on March 10, 2016. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense
As many as 8,000 children under the age of six were exposed to unsafe lead levels during the crisis, which stemmed from a budget-based decision to switch the source of the city’s water supply.
Flint may have been one of the most egregious examples of lead contamination in Americans’ drinking water, but each week’s news provides new evidence that the tragedy in Vehicle City was only the tip of the iceberg.
We hear about these cases as isolated incidents, but each new report is part of a larger, nationwide problem. Our drinking water infrastructure is dangerously out of date, and it’s putting millions at risk of devastating health problems that have generational effects.
Even low levels of lead exposure have been linked to IQ loss, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing and impaired blood cells, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Economic research shows that lower IQ from lead poisoning results in reduced income earned over a person’s lifetime, and that lead poisoning increases the risk that a person will commit violent crimes. For small children, lead exposure is even more serious, and is often irreversible. Yet we’re still finding lead in schools.
Our drinking water infrastructure is dangerously out of date, and it’s putting millions at risk of devastating health problems that have generational effects. Credit: Public Domain
In 2018, we should not have to worry that our kids are being exposed to lead-tainted water at school. We know the dangers of drinking lead-tainted water, and we know how to fix the problem when it is identified: remove and replace lead-laden pipes and water fixtures.
But, as U.S. PIRG Education Fund research has shown, states are operating a patchwork of lead testing programs that leave many schools untested—and millions of families in the dark about the quality of their schools’ drinking water. In Massachusetts, one of the only states with a robust lead testing program, almost half of the taps tested at public schools across the state found some level of lead in the water.
Several states have no requirements for schools and preschools to address the threat of lead in drinking water, and federal rules only apply to roughly 10 percent of schools and preschools that provide their own water.
Equally concerning is the fact that federal regulations only require schools to act when lead concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb), despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated unequivocally that there is no safe level of lead.
Eliminating lead from school drinking water is an issue we can all get behind. It’s also an issue that can be solved through local action.
CALPIRG Executive Director Emily Rusch testifies before the Oakland Unified School District Board of Directors in favor of strengthening the district’s policies related to lead in drinking water. Credit: KRON4
In Wisconsin, our advocates succeeded in passing Leading On Lead, a state law that will allow water utilities to help pay for removal of lead service lines—the top source of lead contamination in drinking water. And in California, we persuaded one of the state’s largest school districts to adopt a policy that expands lead testing and requires school action when outlets test positive for 5 ppb of lead. Now we’re working for even stronger protections.
Instituting strong state and municipal-level regulations to remove lead pipes and fixtures would help put our communities on the path to lead-free water. For that to happen, we need to pressure our elected officials to put this urgent issue at the top of their crowded agendas.
So, as kids flood out the doors of schools across the country, as teachers pack up their classrooms and turn off the lights, take a few minutes to contact your elected leaders, and tell them that clean drinking water is an investment in our future—one that our kids will thank us for.