Lead in school drinking water: What you need to know, and what you can do
Students and parents shouldn’t have to think about whether kids are going to drink lead at school, but because Washington state law allows a higher level of lead than U.S. pediatricians say is safe, schools’ drinking water standards are in question.
A bill in the Washington State Legislature is directed at lowering allowable levels, but there hasn’t been much action since it was introduced last February. (The House Education Committee will discuss it in an executive session on Thursday, Feb. 6.)
And the Seattle Public Schools’ most recent round of voluntary testing said that, yes, there could be a problem.
According to an SPS water data analysis conducted by The Seattle Times last year, lead levels at 53 percent of schools in South Seattle and 36 percent of schools in North Seattle registered above the district’s self-imposed standard of 10 ppb. The highest level of lead was found in a combination drinking fountain-sink fixture measured at Green Lake Elementary in 2016. That measurement was almost six times the SPS self-imposed limit. Though it’s not required, SPS voluntarily tests lead levels every three years, as do some other Washington districts.
As The Seattle Times reported, the district claimed that the high lead readings don’t indicate a problem because the failed fixtures were classroom sinks, not drinking fountains. (But as a Seattle Public Schools parent since 2012, I’ve witnessed kids filling up bottles and being instructed to fill up bottles at classroom sinks by teachers.)
As SPS notes on its site, if a non-drinking fixture tests too high for lead, a sign is posted that it should not be used as a source of drinking water. Though the district’s 10 ppb requirement is an improvement on the 15 ppb threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency, it is still far greater than the 1 ppb recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to ensure good health.
“We now know that there is no safe level of blood lead concentration for children, and the best ‘treatment’ for lead poisoning is to prevent any exposure before it happens,” said Dr. Jennifer Lowry of the American Academy of Pediatrics in a 2016 report. "Most existing lead standards fail to protect children. They provide only an illusion of safety.”
High levels of lead exposure can cause brain damage, learning and behavior challenges, slowed growth and development, as well as hearing and speech problems in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once a child has been exposed to lead, there is little that can be done to mitigate that exposure because lead builds up in the body over time. That’s why prevention is so important.
Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, wants to make Washington public schools’ drinking water safer for kids. The house representative and clinical instructor at the University of Washington School of Public Health sponsored House Bill 1860 last year to require schools in Washington to notify parents when tests detect lead levels exceeding 1 part per billion (ppb), and to remediate at water outlets where lead levels reach 5 ppb or higher.
“Simply putting filters on works. Changing the faucet fixture itself usually reduces the lead level,” Pollet said at one of his recent traveling town halls at Bagel Oasis in Ravenna. He noted that the fix is usually fairly cheap -- sometimes just a simple valve replacement -- and would not necessitate, say, replacing all the pipes in a building as school districts often fear.
Nevertheless, there’s been some past resistance from lawmakers. Though the state Department of Health mandated testing for lead in school water in 2009, the Legislature has not provided the funding to enforce the rule.
“Until funding is available, the previous version of the rule remains in effect and does not include lead testing,” according to the state Department of Health’s website.
“It has a price tag and there will be pushback from legislators who don't want to spend the money, don't understand the effects,” Pollet explained. “We need a concerted effort by parents to tell their legislators it’s insane that school water can lower cognitive ability."
Want to get involved?
You can tell the state Legislature your opinion on HB 1860, which just had a public hearing in the House Education Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 22.
Contact the Seattle Public Schools’ Drinking Water Quality Program to inquire about future lead testing.