A Final Thought

Testing in Schools

Has your school district checked its water fountains and sinks recently to ensure that the drinking water is safe from lead? I hope the answer is “yes.”

The issue of lead in drinking water came to the fore a few months ago when it was learned that drinking water in Flint, Mich., contained lead. The Flint lead problem made national news, informed the public about the dangers of lead in drinking water (especially how it affects young brains) and caused school districts all over the nation to wonder whether lead might be in their drinking water.

In suburban New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, several cautious school districts proactively tested the water in their drinking fountains just so that they could reassure parents that the water their children were drinking was safe. Unfortunately, in many schools, it wasn’t.

In district after district, lead was found to be a problem; fountains had to be shut down and bottled water brought in. It was not in every school or every fountain; many got a clean bill of health, but there was a sufficient number of problems for legislators in New Jersey to call for funds to inspect the water in every school in the state. Let’s be proactive rather than catching up, was the basic attitude.

Let’s be clear from the start. This is not Flint. There is likely no fault involved here. Nobody has been hiding the truth or deliberately using improper water sources in their schools. But, particularly in older buildings, lead deposits can build up. Changes in the water source can be the cause. In some older buildings, lead solder was used in joints. There are many other ways that the quality of water can deteriorate over time.

Before events in Flint brought attention to the issue, these small potential problems might have been ignored. But today, with the Flint spotlight shining, lead in water is a potential issue that should be faced.

When reports of schools with lead in their fountains circulated, my immediate question was, what was involved in testing water for lead. I Googled the question and found literally dozens of entries including several from companies like Home Depot that offered inexpensive and simple water testing kits. Was this something that custodians could use to test and ensure that each school’s water was safe and lead clear?

I put this question to John D’Angelo of Fuller & D’Angelo, an architectural and engineering firm active in school design and construction. John’s response was that they certainly could use these kits to make preliminary tests but he would advise against it. “Schools should have their testing done by independent licensed and certified firms that can make a professional report to district personnel and, more important, to the public.

“As a result of the Flint situation, this is a very emotional issue — ‘Is my child being affected?’ and even the most straightforward report from a school employee is going to be viewed as biased. Get the job done by a qualified independent inspector and then publicize the report. Hopefully, the district will get a clean bill of health. But if it does not, provide the full report to the public, identify the problem spots and tell what steps are being taken to temporarily remove the problem (that often involves shutting off a fountain and substituting bottled water) and what steps will be taken over time to correct it.”

As a sort of coda to John’s advice, one school district announced that testing was underway but that what was discovered would not be reported until all of the district’s fountains had been inspected. That immediately set off alarms and suspicions that there was a lot of lead contamination in the schools. There was not; there were some trouble spots and the district was making a proper response, but by mystifying the test results first, it raised unnecessary fears.

The bottom line: Have the water in your schools tested, let the public know what was found, and if there are problems, get them fixed.

A separate, unrelated national issue could impact your school district. It concerns facilities for transgender people. It may never arise, but which is better? To have a transgender man with a beard, use the girls’ room because the birth certificate says female, or to have him use the boys’ room where he feels comfortable?

Two suggestions: Make sure all restroom stalls are private (some schools have removed the stall doors) and provide several unisex, single toilet rooms that are available for every person who feels more comfortable using them.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."