Protecting Our Children from Lead in School Drinking Water: Getting the Law Right!

October 24, 2018 | 12:59 pm
Hannah Donart
Leader, School Improvement Team Environmental Health Committee

As I pack my kids’ backpacks in the morning, I go through the mental checklist of what they need. Lunch? Check. Nap roll for my four-year-old? Check. Homework folder for my seven-year-old? Check. Filtered water bottles certified to remove lead from drinking water? Check!

My children attend public school in the nation’s capital. Like many US cities, Washington, DC’s old lead service lines are at risk of leaching into drinking water. At high doses lead can be lethal, but children absorb lead more easily and even low doses can have devastating consequences on their physical and cognitive development. DC recently passed the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017, which lowered the actionable level of lead in school drinking water from the outdated federal standard of 15 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb. The 5 ppb action level is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirements for bottled water. However, this standard is not based on science and the new law still does not fully protect children from lead exposure in school drinking water.

No records, no data, no problem

Like many, I was aware of the devastating Flint water crisis, but it hit home when I saw the Washington Post headline: “Elevated Lead Levels Found in Water at Three DC Schools.” These schools were in our neighborhood and two of them had recently undergone modernization, something that was about to happen at my children’s school. During modernization our elementary school would move to trailers on a middle school campus where high lead levels were recently detected. The middle school and elementary schools with high lead in drinking water levels were also made up of predominately minority, economically disadvantaged students. These sorts of environmental injustices were not new to DC though and the agencies responsible for overseeing school modernizations were contributing to these inequities.

DC had a lead-in-drinking-water crisis in the early 2000s. Records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed lead levels as high as 7,500 ppb  found in school drinking sources during this period (5,000 ppb classifies drinking water as “hazardous waste”)!  After submitting a FOIA request to determine what our school plumbing and service line materials were made from, I was informed that government agency officials could not fully assess the plumbing and that District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was not planning to replace it in the building being preserved during modernization.

DC Department of General Services (DGS) safety measures were also concerning. DGS placed do not drink decals above bathroom sinks and refused to test and filter sources used by preschoolers at the temporary location. When I prompted our Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to fund testing, half of the sinks tested above DC’s legal limit of 5 ppb. DCPS again refused to test and filter the sinks after being presented with these results.

Sowing seeds of misinformation

Initial DGS test results from designated drinking water sources in the trailers found the preschool cafeteria sink with levels at 14 ppb. DGS remediated and tested the fixture twice before lead testing results came back at 2 ppb. While they were remediating, DCPS sent out a letter to the school community: “While the levels detected are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s actionable level of 20 ppb, in an effort to exceed these standards, DC Government asserts that no level of lead above 5 ppb is safe for our students’ drinking water sources. As a result, DGS has followed and will continue to follow the District protocol to remediate these elevated levels.”

Sign warning about childhood lead exposure, from the CDC.

What the letter did not say was that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level of lead. What the letter also did not say is that lead from plumbing tends to release variably and concentrations can fluctuate greatly. Children are vulnerable to lifelong, irreversible, physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems from low-dose, chronic lead exposure. The AAP recommends an action level of 1 ppb in schools, but DCPS asserted that levels with 5 ppb of lead or lower were safe.

Tip of the iceberg

Several months later, I learned that the middle school would also undergo modernization; two schools would be located on an active construction site where hazardous materials including lead paint and asbestos were recently abated. They were not planning to do water or air quality testing beyond what was done in a normal school. The team of parents that I led began advocating for commonsense, science-based protective measures and transparency in the process such as ongoing air monitoring during demolition while students were present, hand washing stations in the cafeteria to remove potential contaminants children come into contact with during recess, and parental observation of testing—all of which DCPS denied.

A law is as strong as its weakest regulation

Troubled by disparities among safety standards, I researched the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017. I discovered gaps in DGS’ Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, so I drafted the Lead-Free Drinking Water in DC Public Schools Petition. The petition has been cosponsored by seven DC PTAs and the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization and has been submitted to the Deputy Mayor of Education’s Office (DME). It highlights gaps in current regulations and offers solutions: 1) a clearer definition of a “drinking water source”; 2) more frequent water testing to determine filter effectiveness; 3) better record keeping and abatement of lead service lines and other lead-bearing plumbing; 4) language changed in communications to parents to disclose the AAP’s 1 ppb recommended action level for schools; and 5) point-of-use filters to remove all lead in the water.

 What now?

Current standards are not based on science and lack the capacity to protect our children from lead in school drinking water. While the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 was an improvement, it is not sufficient to fully protect our children’s health. We are not only asking for revisions to the regulations, but also amendments to the law. We are also advocating for updates to environmental health standards in schools in DC. If our nation’s capital can get this right we will be setting a precedent for the rest of the country, proving it is possible to provide a safe, healthy learning environment for our children.

Join me in protecting our children. Contact Councilmember Mary Cheh, Chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment at [email protected] to urge her to amend this law and develop stronger environmental health standards in schools. You can also contact Alex Cross, Special Assistant to the DME at [email protected] in support of the petition.

Hannah Donart recently earned her Master in Public Health with a concentration in Environmental Health Science and Policy from George Washington University. She is currently leading her children’s School Improvement Team Environmental Health Committee in Washington, DC. Her background includes work in climate and energy policy and chemical regulatory policy.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.