States across America are (still) failing to protect students from lead-laden water

Three years ago this month, the Flint Advisory Task Force released a report on the Flint Water Crisis. What they found was a long history of mismanagement, and a toxic legacy of old infrastructure containing lead-lined materials.

One of the task force’s core recommendations was that Michigan schools implement regular and transparent testing, and mandate remediation for drinking water in schools, including installing filters and replacing old water fountains. In addition, it recommended schools dedicate funding for new filters, as well as work to replace lead-lined fixtures.

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But since then, despite the overwhelming public outcry, not enough has been done to address this pervasive threat, especially when it comes to our most vulnerable population: children. 

Flint is not a special case — the town is reflective of a national problem. Right now, kids in schoolyards, hallways and cafeterias across the country are still drinking water laced with lead.

Last week, Environment America and U.S. PIRG released their national “Get The Lead Out” report, which grades states’ on their lead prevention policies. The results were deeply troubling, with more than two-thirds of graded states getting an “F.” (Not surprisingly, Michigan received one of the failing grades.)

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that impairs how kids learn, grow and behave. It’s so toxic that a dose that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, even low levels of lead in kids  have been linked to loss of IQ points, increased hyperactivity and damage to the nervous systems.

The bottom line: There is no safe level of lead exposure for our kids.

Far beyond Flint, in states like Massachusetts, Texas and Washington, more than 50 percent of school taps tested had lead in water. In all likelihood, any confirmed cases of lead are just the tip of the iceberg. Most schools have water fountains, faucets or other parts of the water system made from lead. And wherever there is lead, there is risk of contamination.

So how do we protect our children from this toxic threat? The answer is simple: Our policies should be designed to proactively get the lead out. Instead of waiting for tests to confirm that our children have been drinking lead, we can start by immediately installing certified filters on every faucet and fountain used for drinking or cooking in schools.

And because there is risk wherever there is lead, we must remove all the lead-bearing water fountains, faucets and fixtures that are causing the contamination in the first place.

Finally, because even low levels of lead can irreversibly damage children’s health, schools must shut off taps where lead in water exceeds 1 part per billion (ppb), as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There are some glimmers of hope, including in Michigan. When Detroit Public Schools began finding lead in their water last summer, they acted immediately to protect students’ health. The district shut down taps, provided alternative water, and made all testing results public. Since then, in a show of Motor City spirit, over a dozen businesses and organizations have chipped in to purchase filtered hydration stations for every school in the district. 

Flint should have been a loud and clear signal that we needed to take lead contamination seriously, but in too many instances, it has fallen on deaf ears. At the end of the day, we can all agree that the health and safety of our children is priceless. Protecting our children’s brains should be a no-brainer.

John Rumpler is the senior director for Environment America’s Clean Water campaign. Next week, John will speak at a congressional briefing on the safety of drinking water in American homes and schools, specifically regarding lead contamination. 

Nathan Murphy is the state director of Environment Michigan, a state affiliate of Environment America.