Lead contamination of drinking water can have serious health effects. Learn what you can do to lower the amount of lead in your child's school drinking water.

Reducing Lead in School Drinking Water
solutions for parents, campus faculty & staff, and school administrators

When it comes to human health, lead has been known to be a problematic metal for some time. But the nationwide shock regarding the water crisis in Flint, Michigan revealed a troubling lack of public knowledge on the topic of lead in drinking water. Because children's and adolescents' developing bodies suffer the effects of lead poisoning to a far greater degree than adults, it's crucial to protect them as much as possible. Sadly, a lack of proper legislation, funding, and even concern has left many schools and childcare facilities at risk of lead in their drinking water.

What is the Legislation?

  • The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (public law P.L. 111-380) in January 2014 revised the Safe Drinking Water Act definition of lead free. According to this new revision of the law, wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures must not contain more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead. Solder and flux must not contain more than 0.2 percent lead.
  • Shockingly, there are no federal laws mandating the testing of water in schools and childcare facilities that use a public water supply. While the water supply is subject to testing, that's well before it gets into the building, and the limited point-of-use testing that is done is confined to residences. The pipes that carry it there, the plumbing in the school, and even the fixtures that are used can all be potential sources of lead contamination.
  • Only those schools and child care facilities that maintain their own water supplies (wells, usually) fall under EPA jurisdiction for mandatory, on-site water testing - however, these represent less than 2% of the schools and child care facilities in the nation. This is why informed parents and proactive school districts are absolute necessities in preventing and remedying lead contamination.

How Does Lead Get in Water?

  • Lead is rarely found in water sources. It instead typically leaches into water from pipes and plumbing fixtures made with lead. The school's water supply need not be particularly corrosive (pH of < 6.5) to leach lead out of leaded components, but a lower pH will result in more significant leaching.
  • The age and condition of a facility's plumbing plays a big factor in the amount of lead that might be present, as well as the rate of corrosion. Buildings constructed prior to the late 1980s likely have leaded solder, and buildings older than that could have lead piping somewhere in the system (often the service line that runs between the utility water main and the building).
  • Galvanized steel was once widely used for indoor water distribution, but fell out of favor in the 1960s. These pipes feature a zinc coating meant to protect against corrosion. It turns out that after a while the coating wears away, resulting in significant internal corrosion. This corrosion builds up, eventually choking off the pipe or creating a leak. If lead piping was ever connected upstream of galvanized steel, lead particles could be trapped in this corroded material and enter drinking water even well after the lead line was replaced.
  • Recent studies on galvanized steel have shown that the zinc coating itself can also be a source of lead contamination. Leaching of lead from zinc can be made worse when copper pipe is installed upstream of galvanized pipe due to galvanic corrosion. Even if you aren't experiencing lead problems, it is recommended that galvanized steel be replaced given its potential for blockages and leaks.
  • Older drinking fountains may contain lead in water piping, cooler coils and linings. Welded or soldered joints in piping and in fixtures are another common source of lead contamination, as are older brass faucets (brass faucets and fixtures made after 2014 must conform to "safe" guidelines).
  • Schools are especially susceptible to lead contamination since water stands in pipes and drinking fountains overnight, over weekends, as well as over breaks and holidays - causing even more lead to be leached out.
  • Renovation and construction of plumbing systems can also contribute to lead contamination, either by introducing lead-containing debris into the piping system (and environment), or when new sediment and debris in pipes damages/removes protective coatings that naturally form inside pipes. In many cases, these films of biological or mineral matter help control corrosion by insulating pipe walls from direct contact with water (taking the concept further, some community water systems add corrosion control chemicals to their water supply in order to create similar barriers in the potentially leaded home plumbing of their customers). Thorough post-renovation cleanup, testing and monitoring is essential.
  • Insignificant as it may seem, it is possible for lead-bearing particles and debris to be trapped and accumulate in aerator and filter screens, even when there's no pipe work being done. In such situations, lead can contaminate water as it's leaving the faucet or bubbler. Filters and screens must be regularly checked and cleaned wherever they are present.

Watch out! It's not just water that's at risk - lead paint is still being found in schools and facilities to this day. Cracked or peeling paint should be reported immediately. If the school district or facility cannot provide verifiable information on lead content from past inspections, they should be pressured to schedule inspections and make the results public. Unfortunately, it's often up to mobilized parents and concerned groups to provide the push - either directly to district administration, or through advocacy efforts.

How Does Lead Affect the Body?

  • Lead is especially dangerous because it essentially "tricks" the body. Lead can replace calcium and other elements in biochemical reactions, leading to potentially devastating problems across a range of body processes. Thanks to increased knowledge and lead abatement efforts, it's rare to see life-threatening lead levels - but any exposure to lead can be dangerous. There is no safe or acceptable level of lead in the human body.
  • Lead is absorbed into blood and tissue through ingestion and inhalation (it is not absorbed through skin). While some of the lead is excreted - which can take months - some remains in the teeth and bones of the affected. Lead continues to accumulate in teeth and bone tissue over a lifetime.
  • Children are much more vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, even if the amount ingested is very slight. Health issues associated with lead contamination include slowed or stunted growth, hearing problems, a range of behavior and learning problems, low IQ and impaired cognitive function, and anemia.

Is Your Facility At Risk?

  • Parents and guardians can request a copy of the most recent water quality tests conducted at their child's school from school or district administration. If records aren't forthcoming but there are indications testing was done, it may be possible to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for these public records.
  • A plumber or inspector will be able to tell you if your school or childcare facility has lead pipes. If you're doing some preliminary investigating, look for dull, gray pipes and give them a scratch: lead pipes will scratch easily (being relatively soft) and the scratches will be shiny. Magnets will not be attracted to lead. Galvanized steel pipe appears similar but will be harder, and will attract magnets.
  • The majority of older faucets were constructed using brass, which (before recent legislation) could contain upwards of 8% lead. Old brass valves could contain even greater amounts. Both should be replaced immediately.
  • Samples should be taken from the first draw of cold water lines after water has sat overnight - the line should not be flushed beforehand. Not all faucets or drinking fountains in a facility are the same, and neither is the plumbing leading to each one - this is why it's especially important to take samples from every source of drinking and cooking water.
  • The EPA's "action level" for lead contamination is 15 parts per billion. Test results at or above this number call for immediate mitigation and replacement efforts.
  • The EPA's 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Facilities (Training, Testing, Telling) is an excellent resource for staff and administration seeking to implement lead control programs. The strategies, knowledge and technical guidance provided by the agency is indispensable.
  • Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSUs) are another great resource, particularly for parents/guardians. Typically based out of university medical centers, PEHSUs form a network of experts on the prevention, diagnosis, management and treatment of environmental health issues in children. Your regional PEHSU can answer questions, provide educational tools and consultations, and get you in touch with experts on all manner of environmental health issues, including lead.
  • Concerned parents and guardians should also have their home water tested, especially if the plumbing or fixtures appear to be old. Some water suppliers will test for you, but in most cases you'll have to use a third party. Testing kits are widely available that allow you to collect and send samples directly to a laboratory for analysis. Such kits can also be an option for independent testing at uncooperative schools/facilities.
Girls laughing around school water filter drinking fountain

What Can Be Done?

  • The first step in dealing with lead contamination is determining the cause. Old pipes that are contaminated with lead are harder to deal with, but fixtures can be replaced fairly easily. The EPA suggests using stainless steel as a safe alternative to pipes and fittings that may be contaminated by lead. Thanks to legislation, brass fixtures manufactured after 2014 have also been deemed safe for drinking water.
  • Plastics like PVC and Polyethylene (PE/HDPE) have been a material of choice for service lines for many years now and do not pose a lead risk. Copper is another safe option, but is more expensive.
  • Copper is still the material of choice for indoor water distribution - in most circles, anyway. PEX (a flexible plastic) has been steadily encroaching upon copper's supremacy in recent years. PEX has a lot going for it in terms of both quality and ease of installation, and poses no lead risk. New copper installations are likewise safe, but don't relax just yet if your facility already has copper plumbing: remember that even into the 1980s, the solder used to join copper did contain lead. And though it is unlikely that a newer facility has such solder, to this day there are still reports of unprofessional plumbers and contractors illegally using leaded solder.
  • Point-of-use water filters are the most immediate solution to lead contamination, but should only be the first step in an eventual replacement/repiping plan. Any filter you get should be certified to ANSI/NSF standard 53 (not just 42, which only covers biological contaminants); the unit will be certified to this standard by either NSF International, the Water Quality Association (WQA) or Underwriter's Laboratory (UL). Any faucets left unfiltered should be clearly marked "not for drinking/cooking".
  • Many drinking fountains today ship with integral filters, or with a filter option. Most are basic carbon filters, and should be ANSI/NSF certified.
  • Lead particles range from 0.1-0.7 microns - when using carbon filters, we suggest filter media that is rated no larger than 0.5 microns. Reverse Osmosis (RO) filters are superior in most every respect, but are expensive and slow with relatively low output, usually making them a better option for home.
  • Even the best filter in the world can't do a thing if not properly maintained. Strict schedules for media replacement and other maintenance must be adhered to, and regular inspections performed. Neglecting these duties can make contamination worse.
  • When choosing safe fixtures and fittings, schools will want to look for products that have NSF-61-G or NSF-372 certification. Many manufacturers have chosen to mark their products or the packaging with this designation. However, some items that have always been lead-free may have no identifying mark though they are compliant. If a question arises regarding the lead content of a product, we recommend consulting with the manufacturer. Plated, coated, or acid washed fixtures that met previous NSF-61 standards will not meet the lower lead levels required in NSF-61-G or NSF-372.
  • We're proud to offer a wide selection of drinking fountains from Acorn Aqua, Haws, Halsey-Taylor and Oasis. Whether stainless steel, aluminum, or encased in stone aggregate, these fountains are drinking water safe and made to the highest standards. You can also find drinking water faucets designed for high-use environments like schools, as well as filter kits that come with their own faucet, and standalone dispenser faucets.
  • Faucet flushing became a policy at most schools to help minimize danger until plumbing could be replaced - which, it turns out, rarely happened. While regular flushing according to well-founded standards (see EPA 3Ts Technical Guidance, Exhibit 5.1) can stave off the immediate threat, it does nothing to treat the actual problem. Lead in the plumbing system will remain, and all it takes is a change in water chemistry (not at all uncommon) for it to become a serious problem, as seen on a city-wide scale in Flint.
  • Shortsighted budgets, administrative inertia, and the considerable age of some buildings (upwards of 100 years in some cases) means options for lead mitigation are often limited to flushing, point-of-use filters, and maybe fixture replacement. It's entirely possible that replacing fixtures will solve the problem, but for those facilities whose pipes are the issue, pressure for complete repiping should be sustained whatever the cost - children's health should not rely solely on properly installed and maintained filters.
  • Water should be regularly tested, even after pipes or fixtures have been replaced, or filters installed. Water chemistry is not static and otherwise unnoticeable changes can create problems. Considering the vulnerability of children to all manner of contaminants, regular water testing in schools and childcare facilities should be a given.

Filtered Drinking Water Options for Schools & Childcare Facilities

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