Get the Lead Out of Drinking Water in Schools: Model Law

Lead in drinking water in schools has been in the news over the years, with particular concerns in New York City and Washington, D.C., among other cities. But ever since the recent crisis of lead in drinking water exploded in Flint, Michigan, parents across the country have begun to wonder anew about whether their children are exposed to lead in drinking water at schools and child care centers.

And parents have plenty to be concerned about. The experts—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization—agree that there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Here’s the Alarming News: Children Are Exposed to Lead in Drinking Water in Schools

NRDC analyzed the recent testing data in New York State, which showed that

  • 82% of public schools reported one or more taps that tested above the state lead action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb);
  • more than 56% of public schools tested above the state action level at 5% or more of their taps;
  • almost 2% of public schools found elevated levels for at least half of the taps tested; and
  • 16 public schools exceeded the state action level at every outlet tested.

These findings are even more alarming when you consider that the New York State Lead action level for schools at 15 ppb is not a health-based standard because there is no safe level of lead in water. 

NRDC has created a model law for states to adopt which sets forth the best practices for filtration, testing, and remediation of lead in drinking water at schools and child care centers. (FAQs can be found here.) 

Why Lead Is a Problem

NRDC recently chronicled why lead in drinking water can be so dangerous in a June 2016 report entitled “What’s in Your Water? Flint and Beyond.” Lead is a poisonous heavy metal that can affect almost every organ and system in the human body, with irreversible effects. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.

Schools are the places where children spend the most time when not at home, making schools important places to address environmental hazards. From the first bus run, through the school day, and to after-school activities, children can spend over 35 hours per week at school. Additionally, women comprise a majority of the staff at schools and child care facilities, and many of them are of child-bearing age or pregnant.

Young children and fetuses are most susceptible to the adverse effects of lead, particularly in development of the brain and nervous system. Exposure to lead may cause children to have a reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) and behavior problems, including a lack of attention span and aggressive behavior. Lead exposure can also lead to reading disabilities, truancy, and high dropout rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

In adults, lead exposure can increase high blood pressure and cause kidney damage. Pregnant women can suffer miscarriage and stillbirth and can deliver babies prematurely and with low birth weight.

How Lead Gets into School Drinking Water: The Myth of “Lead-Free” Plumbing

So how does lead get into school drinking water? Lead in plumbing materials—pipes, fixtures, and fittings—are the most common sources of lead in drinking water. When water sits unused in school plumbing over weekends, school breaks, and summer, more lead can dissolve into the water. 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” (technically, “not more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures” and “not containing more than 0.2 percent lead when used with respect to solder and flux”). 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.

Testing for Lead in Schools Is Incomplete and Inadequate at Best

Most states do not require testing for lead in drinking water in schools and child care centers. New York State was the first to require statewide testing in schools, having adopted a law in 2016.

A November 2018 white paper from the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, Perspectives on State Legislation Concerning Lead Testing in School Drinking Water, shows that 17 states and  the District of Columbia passed laws or regulations concerning testing for lead in drinking water in schools. A February 2019 report by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a March 2019 report by Environment America and U.S. PIRG also analyze state testing programs for lead in schools. Most of these programs inadequately protect children and staff because the action level is too high, testing is too infrequent, or remediation is not required. Less is known about the requirements for testing for lead in child care centers, though New York City has a testing requirement in Article 47 of the NYC Health Code, section 47.43.

A July 2018 report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) determined that nationwide, an estimated 43% of schools tested for lead in drinking water, 41% did no testing, and 16% did not know if it tested. 

The Model Law

NRDC has developed a model law for states to adopt—and adapt to their unique circumstances—on testing and remediating lead in drinking water in schools and child care centers. This model law provides a roadmap and the latest best practices for states to adopt a testing and remediation program for schools and child care centers that will protect children and staff.

Here’s how the model law works

First, the schools and child care centers must inventory and map their water taps.

Second, the schools and child care centers must install signs on taps that cannot be used as drinking water, (such as a sink in a janitor’s closet or in a classroom) stating that it is not to be used for drinking water.

Third, for the taps that will be used for drinking water, schools and child care centers must install certified filters.

Fourth, each designated drinking water tap, which will already have a filter on it as required by this model law, will then be tested for lead.

Notably, this model law follows the law adopted by the District of Columbia and requires certified filters to be installed before testing because testing programs around the country demonstrate that lead is prevalent in unfiltered drinking water in schools. In other words, we know that because there is no such thing as “lead-free” plumbing products, lead will be detected in unfiltered drinking water in schools. We also know that filtration works when filters are properly installed and maintained. That sequence best protects our children and this model law follows that obvious and necessary approach.

Fifth, if the test results show that lead is over a certain level—1 part per billion (ppb) or greater—that tap will have to be immediately shut off and then remediated so that it will test below 1 ppb of lead concentration. Schools will have to provide an alternative source of water, e.g., bottled water and come up with a plan to fully fix the problem. The testing protocols outlined in the model law will determine if the problem is in the fixture itself or further up the line.

Other Provisions in the Model Law

Transparency
The model law also requires schools and child care centers to share information about the drinking water. That is, at the beginning of the school year, schools and child care centers must inform parents about lead and its health effects and provide information about the school or child care testing program. The schools and child care centers must also share the test results, and if the test results are above 1 ppb, they must also provide the plans to fix the problem. Parents and teachers must be fully informed so that they can protect their children and themselves.

Lead Service Lines
Lead service lines are less common at schools than at homes (because schools require larger water lines to provide drinking water to a greater number of people), but they can be present in child care centers—especially those operated out of single-family homes. This model law requires the local water utilities to determine if there are any lead service lines providing water to schools or child care centers, and to bear the cost of fully replacing those lead service lines.

Guidance and Training to Schools and Child Care Centers
Schools and child care centers cannot go this alone. The model law requires the state to provide guidance and training to the schools and child care centers on maintenance of filters and testing for lead.

Funding for this Program
States that adopt this model law need to commit to funding this testing and remediation program—schools and child care centers can hardly afford to absorb the cost. The model law also refers to funding from other federal sources, such as the Affordable Care Act, the national school breakfast and lunch programs, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and USEPA’s lead in school drinking water program (see EPA summary of grants for school and child care testing).

The federal government also has some funding available under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and America’s Water Infrastructure Act and the to help schools and child care centers address lead in water issues (see Congressional Research Service report) summarizing WIIN and AWIA grants programs for testing lead in schools and child care centers).

An Investment in Our Children and their School and Child Care Staff

This model law represents a new approach for states that will certainly incur costs. However, this program is a vital and necessary investment in our children and school and child care staff. Prevention of lead exposure and the significant public health effects caused by that exposure is far more cost-effective than addressing the problems after the exposure. Our children and our greater society deserve these preventive measures.

Resources

NRDC would like to thank the following persons who provided immeasurable contributions to this model law through their expertise and thoughtful ideas and comments:

Technical and policy reviewers:

  • Claire L. Barnett, MBA, Founder and Executive Director, Healthy Schools Network
  • Elin Betanzo, P.E., Safe Water Engineering, LLC
  • Nancy G. Love, Ph.D., P.E., BCEE, Borchardt and Glysson Collegiate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan
  • Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, Ph.D., affiliate faculty in Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech; Founder, Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives

Law interns who provided research and early drafts of the model law:

  • Trent Fucci, CUNY School of Law 2019
  • Louis Coppersmith, NYU School of Law 2019

About the Authors

Joan Leary Matthews

Senior Attorney, Safe Water Initiative, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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