After the crisis in Flint, Michigan, school officials across the country have started to investigate water supplies in local school areas to uncover any hazardous materials which could be damaging children’s health.
There is a small pool of schools that conduct thorough tests of their water supply, but many don’t feel the need to check them because tests are supposedly run by outside resources prior to drinking.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data analyzed by The Associated Press showed that 278 violated federal lead levels at some point during the past three years, and over a third of the data reported was far beyond the federal lead limit. A common theme throughout the cases is the lack of new lead pipes in the schools. The oldness of these pipes results in leaking, flaking and decay.
Riverside Elementary in the northern Wisconsin town of Ringle has lead pipes embedded in its concrete foundation that previously seeped into the water supply before recent changes by the state government. However, pipe installations don’t come cheap, according to Jack Stoskopf, an assistant superintendent. “For the cost of that, you might as well build a new school,” He said.
Rather than installing new pipes, the school bought plastic water bottles to give to students–costing them more than $1000 a month. Buying bottled water for drinking has been happening for a long time at Ava Head Start in Ava, Missouri, even before lead levels increased. But it was not until February, after another round of high test results, that state regulators told the preschool to use bottled water for cooking and cleaning the toothbrushes for the 59 children, ages 3 and 4. “The cost is not an option,” said Sandra Porter, Ava’s cook and water operator. “We’re just doing what we have to.”
Schools required to conduct lead testing represent only about 1 of every 10 schools in the country. Those receiving their water from city-owned systems — an estimated 90,000, according to the EPA — are not asked to do so.
In recent weeks, state lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have proposed legislation that would mandate a thorough investigation of all schools. Many other state lawmakers have proposed more funding for investigations. In March, some samples from the school district in Newark, New Jersey, came back with high amounts of lead. The district shut off sinks and fountains in 30 buildings and offered to test as many as 17,000 children for lead. “In schools, that means almost every weekend,” said Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose the lead problem in Flint’s water.
His colleague, Yanna Lambrinidou, also mentions how easy it is for high lead levels to fly under the radar. If the majority or the water fountains are not above the threshold, the school can be called “safe,” even if certain fountains are above the level of safe consumption.
Last year alone, lead levels exceeded the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion at 64 schools or day care centers that are required to test because they have their own water systems.
There are certain locations that have experienced this problem to a greater degree–particularly Pennsylvania, Maine and New Jersey. School leaders in Idaho Falls, Idaho, have quickly removed two fountains that failed to pass the test, one of which was 3 years old. Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality recognized that more testing should’ve occurred three years ago. Still, regulators told school officials this year they could keep the two drinking fountains if they just flushed the water each day, said John Pymm, safety director with the Bonneville Joint School District in Idaho Falls. “It made the most sense to get them out of service and make folks feel at ease,” he said. Tyler Baum, whose three daughters attend the elementary school, said he was not too concerned because the school acted quickly on its own. “It certainly made me more aware of the water,” he said. “We just assume we’ll have clean drinking water.”