The 2014 water quality crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought public attention to the health risks of lead exposure, particularly to children, and the legislative gaps in prevention. Lead is a colorless, odorless neurotoxin that can negatively affect nearly every function in the body and can hinder many aspects of brain development in children. Testing for lead in drinking water can identify its presence and lead to remediation and risk reduction.
Since the crisis in Flint, only 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to mandate or encourage schools to test water outlets for lead. Until now, little work has been done to compare and analyze the effectiveness of these laws. For the past several months, the Center for Green Schools at USGBC has researched existing data and reports on these laws and interviewed state officials and stakeholders to learn more about each law’s impact on reducing the risk of lead contamination in school drinking water.
The findings have been published in our most recent white paper , "Perspectives on State Legislation Concerning Lead Testing in School Drinking Water." The paper is intended to help advocates and state legislators develop comprehensive and effective laws to combat lead contamination in schools.
Frequently asked questions on lead in school drinking water
How widespread is the risk to children?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that half a million U.S. children ages 1–5 have blood lead levels above the level where public health action is recommended. The problem of lead exposure is widespread, and many schools play an unfortunate role in perpetuating the risk to children.
A 2018 survey by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 43 percent of school districts had tested water outlets for lead, while 41 percent of districts had not tested, with the remaining 16 percent not knowing whether or not they had tested. Every school that has not been tested could potentially be exposing students to contaminated water and the risk of adverse health effects.
What is the federal government doing to help?
The Center’s paper comes at an important moment. In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled several new grant programs aimed at testing and remediating lead in drinking water, and a new version of the "3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water Toolkit," their guidance on reducing children’s risk of lead exposure, was released to serve as a foundation for grant applicants. States will administer these grants, and communities must be ready to ensure that their state leaders are making informed and effective policy decisions.
The federal government has taken action; but as the report explains in depth, there remains a gap between federal, state and local regulations that has left the issue of drinking water quality unaddressed in many schools. In the U.S., drinking water quality is regulated by the federal government and state governments and managed by public entities and private water companies.
The 151,000 public water systems in the U.S. are responsible for most water sources, treatment and distribution. Lead contamination, however, can occur at many points between a distribution system and a child ingesting water—in service lines, building pipes and fittings, sink fixtures and so on. Without action by the states, most school drinking water outlets will remain untested for lead.
What can parents and advocates do?
Though the actions taken by lawmakers in the states featured in this report indicate significant progress, the vast majority of public schools in the U.S. are not required to test for lead, which is the first step in protecting students from this risk. This paper presents a valuable resource for understanding existing state legislation.
Legislators in the states without broadly applicable mandates now have the opportunity to build upon the progress of their peers and find efficient ways to ensure that lead contamination in schools is addressed. Share this paper with your legislators to urge new or revised policies to test for lead in school drinking water.
If a parent lives in one of the states that has mandated testing of school drinking water outlets, the results of tests should be available from the school district or local education agency. If parents are unable to obtain the results and are in one of the states that has mandated testing, they should contact the agency named as responsible for enforcement or contact their state representative.