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EPA’s plan to test for lead in schools will do more harm than good

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In the waning days of the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its much anticipated revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which regulates heavy metals in drinking water. Lead and copper leach from plumbing materials like piping, solders and plumbing fixtures. This occurs in our homes, places of work, schools and anywhere else people expect to drink water. 

In the new rule, the EPA is requiring that water providers start testing for lead in elementary schools and licensed child care facilities. Lead is a potent neurotoxin, especially for children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even low-blood lead levels can irreparably harm a child’s IQ, academic achievement and ability to pay attention. 

Historically, testing in schools has not been required unless a school is its own water provider. Most are not. Where testing has been conducted, the only support from the EPA has been their nebulous 3Ts (Training, Testing, and Taking Action) manual. Revised in 2016, the 3Ts calls on schools and child care facilities to use testing results to reduce lead levels in drinking water “to the lowest possible concentrations.”

At face value, the testing requirement seems necessary and long overdue. But the EPA’s new law has little to do with water safety. In fact, it will inflict more harm than good. 

First, the EPA chose to ignore most drinking water locations in buildings during testing. Only five locations must be tested in schools and two locations in child care facilities. We guarantee such limited testing will miss instances of lead contamination. Our own experiences in Indiana and Iowa have frequently encountered schools with over 100 drinking water locations. Some kindergarten and elementary classrooms have a water fountain built into every sink to provide convenient access. Will your child’s classroom be one of the lucky ones who has their water tested? 

Even the EPA itself acknowledges the new rule doesn’t go far enough, stating that the new testing requirements are only intended to be a “preliminary screen for lead in schools and child care facilities and…not a replacement for comprehensive testing as detailed in the 3Ts.” That’s right; the EPA’s new law ignores EPA’s own 3Ts guidance.

Second, when lead is found, and it will be, the EPA provided no requirements for how schools should respond. Absent is an acceptable level of lead above which a school must act to improve water safety. Left to their own devices, most schools have been misappropriating the non-health based “action level” of 15 micrograms per liter or parts-per-billion (ppb) from the original LCR. But this is wrong; the value has no medical basis. Analogous to a car’s dashboard warning light, the 15 ppb action level is only to be used by water utilities to assess corrosion in their buried pipe network. Even EPA officials have stated, “there is no evidence to support a conclusion that lead levels in drinking water near the 15 ppb are safe, especially for sensitive populations.” 

From our review of state websites, at least 27 are using 15 ppb or higher as their threshold for when an outlet in a school or child care facility should be taken out of service (we note that several states are still using 20 ppb based on outdated EPA guidance). The actual number of states incorrectly using 15 ppb is likely much greater, as specific guidelines for schools or child care facilities are not available for many states. For comparison, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow bottled water to have more than 5 ppb lead. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated there is no safe level of lead exposure to children and advocates for an acceptable level in schools and child care facilities of 1 ppb. When doctors say that children shouldn’t drink water above 1 ppb, why are schools settling for 15 ppb? Shouldn’t school drinking water at least be as safe as bottled water, if not safer? 

The revisions to the LCR will enshrine unsafe water across the nation’s schools and child care facilities. Parents are right to be alarmed. Currently, President Biden has stopped the new law from taking effect pending regulatory review. If the Biden administration is truly committed to environmental justice and access to safe drinking water for all, especially the most vulnerable, these critical failures must be remedied. Kids shouldn’t be harmed by their drinking water at school. The Biden administration will have to act to make sure they are not.  

David Cwiertny is a professor and he directs the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa. Andrew Whelton is a professor and he directs the Center for Plumbing Safety at Purdue University.

Tags biden administration CDC Drinking water EPA rule heavy metals Joe Biden Lead and Copper Rule lead in water Safe Drinking Water school children schools

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