Testing For Lead in School Pipes

by Karla Allen on 2017-07-12 11:49am

Image credit: nbcnews.com

It’s not just Flint, Michigan.

As most water treatment operators know, there is no federal regulation requiring schools specifically to test their drinking water for lead, but right now, there are few greater sources of concern to local jurisdictions and states and no hotter topic for water operators. Ever since Flint, local news investigative outlets have themselves been testing water in the schools and then broadcasting their findings on local nightly newscasts and their websites. While both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have guidelines for water testing in schools, it is up to the individual states to regulate – or not regulate – this area. (See here for the CDC flowchart for water testing in schools and here for the EPA regulations - both agencies say that while there is no safe level for lead exposure, the current allowable threshold 15 parts per billion [ppb].)

Image credit: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/03/17/drinking-water-lead-schools-day-cares/81220916/

Unfortunately, kids have had opportunities to consume lead for years, whether from the 40-year-old paint on their windowsills (lead paint was banned in 1978), or through the 30-year-old pipes connecting to hallway water fountains at their schools (lead pipes for water service were banned in 1986). While schools for years have been dealing with the lead paint on their walls, numerous schools are now proactively participating in their state’s voluntary lead content testing, while states are taking the next step to legislatively require testing in their schools.

Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning

Why are water operators and others working so hard to keep lead away from kids, and everyone else, in the first place? The possible permanent health consequences for children who have exposure to lead reads like a horrifying fine print of symptoms from a prescription drug side-effect sheet: anemia, autism, high blood pressure, seizures, headaches, kidney disease, poor hearing, abnormal brain function, reproductive problems, decreased cognitive abilities, stomach distress, reduced capacity for learning, nerve damage, poor muscle coordination, decreased bone and muscle growth, and the list goes on.  

The following is a sampling of states with their current water treatment testing plans specifically for students. (Many states incorporate testing of school water as part of their regular testing of public water supplies, but the following includes those states with schools as their specific target for testing.)

  • In California, the nation’s most populous state, a permit action is required by the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water, and all community water systems must analyze up to five samples from drinking water fountains and “regularly used drinking water faucets at a school” if the district requires. As there is no state regulatory requirement, the Division, working with the California Department of Education, has identified only 1,259 out of the approximately 13,000 K-12 schools in the state which have participated in lead testing as of June 2017 -- less than 10% of the total. See this map to see how many California schools in a specific county have tested. (This new testing applies to schools which are using municipal water supplies, not those which are permitted as public water systems and have their own water supply.)   

  • For Idaho students and water operators, testing for lead in the water in schools is voluntary, if they are not already regulated as a public water system. Idaho follows the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, which applies to water utilities.

  • Illinois is one of the most recent states to adopt a regulatory policy. In January 2017 the Governor signed Public Act 99-0922 establishing “sampling for lead in drinking water in schools, and for repair and mitigation due to lead levels in the drinking water supply”. The legislation also establishes a parental notification requirement of the sample results. (Testing is additionally now required for licensed daycare facilities, which is a professional group that is often paired with schools on this issue.)

  • As of July 1, schools across Virginia also fall under a mandate to test that their drinking water meets federal guidelines for lead. Overall, they need to test for lead and then mitigate high lead levels. Importantly, the new legislation does not attach a time frame in which schools need to get their pipes tested.

  • In Maryland, the Governor signed legislation this spring that requires periodic testing specifically for the presence of lead in the drinking water outlets of school buildings, in addition to requiring the state Department of the Environment to adopt regulations that would establish “lead-free school environments.”

  • For Oregon, testing of the water for lead in schools took a step forward when, immediately post-Flint, the Governor enacted a statewide plan for reducing student exposure to lead in drinking water, which the legislature later followed up with funding to implement.

  • In Ohio, the Governor signed legislation in June 2016 that requires public water sampling for both lead and copper, and establishes a testing schedule.

  • And lastly, as water operators in Hawaii know, the islands have a completely different situation. Thanks to nature -- specifically volcanic soil and an abundance of groundwater -- as well as the surprising absence of lead pipes, Hawaii leads the nation in low lead levels in their drinking water.

Several more states have legislation on deck for consideration on the topic of lead contamination, including new requirements for lead testing in children. Moreover, in states that don’t currently mandate testing, school districts are choosing to test based upon the voluntary guidelines that are already in place. Other states, such as Indiana and Nevada, have received public grants through various channels to begin testing as soon as this summer.


National legislation has also been introduced that would help schools test for and remove any lead contamination and potentially provide the funding necessary to do so.


Image credit: radiantplumbing.com


So, while it’s not just Flint that has discovered lead in their children’s drinking water, it may be said that Flint brought to the forefront the political and safety issues about lead that have reverberated across the nation. The financial implications for already cash-strapped states combined with severe health and general PR consequences have created an environment of change and opportunity for anyone in this field who can provide cost-sensitive solutions. Continuing education for water operators has, in some cases, started to emphasize this use. Water operators are well-positioned to be informed mitigators of lead contamination and should make every effort to be up to speed on the issues facing their water districts.

Karla Allen, the author, is a researcher and writer for a variety of trades for At Your Pace Online, an online education provider for water technicians and operators through aypotech.com, as well as other trades, where we provide continuing education units (CEU) for those in the water treatment profession.