How Schools Can Find Success with Lead Programs

How can schools push for safe and successful water programs? Here are a few tips.

Currently, only 15 states require public school districts to test for lead in drinking water — and when they do test, many are well above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. Unfortunately, what this means is that nearly half of all U.S. students go to schools in states that do not have specific programs for testing drinking water.
This issue is top of mind for many school districts, especially since lead contamination can have harmful effects on a child's development. The EPA has even stated that "low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells."
While lead contamination is a primary concern for educators, unfortunately, remediation is often out of their hands. State governments are often the driving force behind these programs and must improve legislation to enforce that regular testing and treatment occurs.
So, how can schools push for safe and successful water programs? Here are a few tips:

Let go of the idea that only older buildings have issues

According to a 2012-2013 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average age of US school buildings was 44 years, and many had not had major renovations for 12 years or more. While aging buildings house a portion of our students, the myth that only older school buildings have problems — including poor water quality — is simply not true. This way of thinking must be abandoned to truly create a successful water management program.

Up until 1991, the EPA’s acceptable threshold for lead in water was 50 ppb and up until 2014, 8% lead was allowed in any lead-free fixtures. These standards were alarmingly high and unsuccessful at protecting an entire population of students, even in new buildings, since no amount of lead is safe and even a small amount can cause detrimental effects in children and young adults. Sadly, many newer schools will never know if they even hit this threshold due to a lack of water testing.

Many districts only test buildings based on age, which means newer or renovated facilities can opt-out of testing. Instead of abiding by this trend, schools should use the facility’s age to prioritize the amount of testing and funding required to complete it, rather than if it’s tested or not. Therefore, every facility will be tested, but those with a higher risk will have the necessary funding to begin solving the issue.

Encourage transparency

Transparency builds trust with the public — including parents and guardians — but up until 2007, water utilities and a limited number of school districts required to sample under the LCR were not required to disclose lead test results. However, the new proposed LCR revisions continue to push transparency as a central requirement. Water systems would be required to publish lead service line inventories online and notify customers who are served by these lines on an annual basis. Also, homeowners and facilities would be notified within 24 hours if they tested above 15 ppb.

While this process has improved for individual homeowners, transparency is still lacking with school districts and childcare facilities. Currently, many schools will send home or publish lengthy lab reports online, which only leads to frustration from parents. These documents are often difficult to decipher and lead to the assumption that the school is hiding something, and their children aren't safe.

Instead of continuing with this failed process, school administrators should share where issues are found, what steps are being taken and how the community can get more information on the subject. This approach will effectively communicate that the children are being put first, and what short term programs — such as filters — and long-term measures are being put into effect.

Seek necessary funding

While the proposed revisions to the LCR are an excellent place to start, there must be more comprehensive standards put in place to completely replace lead plumbing and provide safe water in every facility nation-wide. How can school officials help make this happen? A jumping-off point is to encourage the public and districts to push government officials to take steps in the right direction.

Apply for and ask state agencies to deliver the proper funding needed to provide safe water for students in schools and childcare facilities. In fact, we estimate it could cost over $150 million to test public schools alone nationally.

A comprehensive study conducted by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) found that a funding gap of 38% existed between available and needed resources for water programs. Enforce the need for funding thought quantitative data gathered through the use of modern water testing platforms. By supporting the argument with actual data to help provide cost estimation, there is a higher likelihood that local and state governments will recognize the need for adequate funding.

With so few states requiring mandatory testing, those who have implemented these standards are ahead of the times. However, the steps currently in place are not nearly enough to keep children safe. Lawmakers must abandon outdated myths, encourage transparency and provide adequate funding for water remediation programs to protect children's health and make informed decisions about lead testing on an ongoing basis.

About the Author

Megan Glover is the Cofounder and CEO of 120WaterAudit, a cloud-based software and water testing service that helps government agencies, public water systems, school districts and daycares execute lead sampling compliance programs.

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