In the wake of the Flint water crisis several schools have shut off their drinking water due to high levels of lead, raising the question: ‘How big is this issue?’
Several schools across the US have either discovered or acted upon evidence of high levels of lead in their drinking water in the wake of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, with one leading expert warning the cases could mark “the tip of the iceberg”.
Yanna Lambrinidou, who is an affiliate faculty member in science, technology and society at Virginia Tech, the university that helped uncover the extremely elevated levels of lead in Flint, said schools are especially vulnerable to contamination from ageing pipes, faucets and valves.
The full extent of the problem in America’s schools with lead, which can affect the brain and nervous system in both children and adults, is unknown.
However, Lambrinidou said a slew of recent cases in which schools have shut off drinking water supplies, from New York to California, could signal a wider problem.
“There’s no way to know,” she said. “I think it’s only reasonable to assume that these cases are only the tip of the iceberg.”
Michael Sharp, the father of a tenth-grader in Binghamton, New York, received a disturbing letter from the local school district last week.
Seven drinking water outlets in Binghamton’s public schools had tested too high for lead, the letter stated. The tests had been performed several years ago, but the district took action only last month, when problematic sinks or fountains were shut down, flushed or given new filters.
“I was surprised, because it seemed like a big deal to have lead in the water,” Sharp said, adding: “The part that was more upsetting was that they had the results for more than three years and nothing had been done about it.”
Like the rest of America, Sharp knew about the crisis in Flint, where water in some homes contained dangerous amounts of lead. Now, in the wake of Flint, schools around the nation are on heightened alert for lead – and some are finding levels that are too high.
Last week, the school superintendent in Ithaca, an hour’s drive from Binghamton, announced that drinking water would be shut off in all school buildings, after water sources in two schools tested high. Other Ithaca school buildings had not tested their water for 11 years, and a number of those older tests had showed fountains with excessive amounts of lead.
Lead problems have recently been found in the water in an elementary school near Detroit, and another elementary school in eastern Idaho. In an elementary school in the California wine country town of Healdsburg, tests last year showed levels of lead above federal standards in a few locations, but Healdsburg officials said more recent tests have been normal and they are continuing to provide bottled water. In Jackson, Mississippi, schools are urgently moving ahead with testing after lead was uncovered during citywide sampling.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not require schools that draw from public water supplies to test for lead. (The public water systems perform their own testing, not specific to schools.) Schools that use their own water systems, such as those drawing from wells, may need to test some drinking sources every six months.
In 2004, federal lawmakers introduced a bill that would have required schools to test annually for lead and appropriated $30m for the purpose. But it failed to pass. Last week, New York senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, called for the EPA to help investigate the problems in Ithaca.
Ithaca is “a very typical example of a school that found problems a long time ago and didn’t notify the community,” Lambrinidou said. Because of Flint, she added, “We’re going to be seeing probably more school communities testing because of parental concerns.”
In Washington DC, where high levels of lead more than a decade ago in city water sparked a congressional investigation, consultants are finding that about one in every 200 drinking water samples in schools tests too high for lead (filters are generally added to the fountains in question). In Baltimore, the lead problem in schools has been deemed so extensive that children drink bottled water, according to Lambrinidou.
Schools pose special challenges for lead – and not just because children, with their developing bodies and brains, are especially vulnerable to toxins. Unlike homes, the water at schools goes through long periods of not being used, including during nights, weekends and holidays and especially the summer.
Even though lead pipes have been banned for decades, lead from faucets, valves and solder (ie, the way pipes are connected), as well as from the ageing pipes themselves, can leach into the water. “When water sits in pipes and stagnates, it collects and it absorbs lead,” Lambrinidou said. “These prolonged stagnations can actually place children at increased risk.”
Even regular testing can miss lead particles that flake off old plumbing. Thus, even flushing drinking fountains - ie running the water for a long time, to get rid of the standing water - may not wash out all the lead (and most schools probably do not flush the water frequently anyhow). Most buildings constructed before 2014 will probably have some plumbing that includes lead, Lambrinidou said.
“If I were a parent, I would organize with other parents to request that the school, first of all, sample correctly [and] that any school built before 2014 uses lead-certified filters at every single tap, just to make sure children are protected,” Lambrinidou said.
In New York state in 2014, nearly 1.5% of children under six who were tested for lead have excessive levels in their blood – one of the highest percentages in the nation (though most children have not been tested, and the figures do not include New York City, where children’s lead levels are much lower.)
In Binghamton, the schools superintendent has committed to improvements going forward.
“Going into the future, we commit ourselves to testing our drinking water sources every three years. We are obligating ourselves to do that,” superintendent Marion Martinez said last week, according to the Press & Sun Bulletin of Binghamton. She said that while there was no legal testing requirement from New York state or the federal government, “we have a moral requirement”.
Mr Sharp said he was not especially alarmed for his daughter, but he took the opportunity to discuss a basic civics lesson.
They talked at length, he said, “about the bigger problems of why is there not a better system for testing the water”.http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/01/lead-water-us-schools-water-raises-alarm