Bipartisan Bills Aim to Get the Lead Out of School Water

The Flint Water Crisis tragically highlighted for most Michiganders the damaging health effects of drinking water contaminated with lead. While Flint residents continue recovering from the devastating effects of the Crisis, policy makers have begun taking seriously the need to remove lead from our drinking water. In 2018, Michigan became the first state to strengthen the grossly inadequate federal Lead and Copper Rule. And thanks to bipartisan sponsorship of NRDC’s Filter First model legislation (fact sheet and model bill), Michigan might soon also become the national leader in protecting kids from lead in drinking water in schools and at daycare facilities.

Currently, there is no federal law requiring the testing or remediation of lead in school drinking water. When school officials choose to test for lead in their drinking water, they often find it. When they find it, they should take immediate action in an attempt to remediate the lead problem. But the solution to the lead in school drinking water problem isn’t testing coupled with attempts at remediation. Instead, the most protective solution is adopting NRDC’s Filter First strategy, which requires the installation of filtration devices at designated drinking water locations and subsequent testing to ensure the filters are working properly.

The problem with relying upon testing for lead first and then remediation afterwards is that testing is hit-or-miss, since lead levels can vary enormously depending upon the day and every fountain or outlet must be repeatedly tested, so kids are exposed until the lead is discovered. It also is more expensive if testing done repeatedly and correctly to identify lead contamination prior to remediation.  

Further, as my colleague Joan Matthews writes, schools are very likely to have plenty of lead in their fountains, plumbing and fixtures:

The sad truth is that there is generally no such thing as truly “lead-free” plumbing, fixtures, and fittings—current federal law allows up to 0.25% of lead in pipe materials labeled “lead-free.”… Prior federal law in effect until January 4, 2014, allowed up to a whopping 8% of lead in “lead-free” plumbing. Reading plumbing product labels based on current and prior federal law can be tricky. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needed 11 pages to explain how to identify certified plumbing at the store.

For these reasons, we believe that installing certified lead-removing filters and testing them to be sure they are working makes the most sense.

On October 15th, Michigan became the first state in the U.S. to introduce with bipartisan support NRDC’s Filter First model legislation. Senator Curt VanderWall (R- Ludington) and Representative Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) teamed up to sponsor the Filter First in schools legislation, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) and Representative Lynn Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Township) sponsored the Filter First daycare bill.

With the growing recognition of the potential for lead in school drinking water, New York passed the nation’s first law in 2016 requiring schools to test and, not surprisingly, New York school districts found a lot of lead. In fact, NRDC’s review of New York’s data revealed that over 80 percent of New York State public school buildings had at least one outlet testing above their action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb), which is 15 times higher than the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended threshold.

Closer to home, Indiana spent $4.4 million during the 2017-2108 school year to collect 57,000 drinking water samples at schools that served 60% of the state’s public school students. Indiana also used a lead action level of 15 ppb. Even with a level that is 15 times higher than the safe level, 62% of schools had at least one fixture that exceeded the threshold.

Parents would not intentionally expose their children to lead, and it’s especially ironic that students are consuming it at school while undertaking their math, spelling, and history lessons. Now that we know it’s in our water, we can and must do better by adopting the Filter First approach. It’s the only way to protect our kids from lead in school and daycare drinking water.

About the Authors

Cyndi Roper

Michigan Senior Policy Advocate, Safe Water Initiative, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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