Equilibrium & Sustainability

Twelve percent of Massachusetts school water fixtures exceed lead thresholds: study


About 12 percent of water fixtures in Massachusetts public schools examined by researchers have lead levels that exceed the threshold at which the state requires shutting them down, a new study has found.

Researchers from Northeastern University observed that these fixtures — such as water fountains and faucets — contained lead levels that exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb), the point at which Massachusetts mandates that water should not flow from the systems. The problematic findings were not evenly distributed, with 90 percent of the failures occurring at just 34 percent of the schools, the study determined.

In total, the scientists analyzed 47,727 lead measurements at 1,094 schools across the state, taking an average of 44 samples per building, according to the study, published on Wednesday in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Massachusetts has a total of 1,840 public schools, according to the state’s Department of Education.  

“Building water quality is hard to maintain and monitor because of factors such as the large number of fixtures, varying water use patterns, and complex plumbing network,” Kelsey Pieper, study co-author and an assistant professor at Northeastern’s College of Engineering, told The Hill in an email.

“This is then coupled with widespread use of lead-bearing plumbing materials in schools,” she continued. “This included ‘lead-free’ plumbing components which our team has shown can still release lead under certain water conditions.”

The widespread occurrence of lead exposure in schools is well-established, but the enforcement date of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule Revisions has faced bureaucratic delays, according to the study. 

The Biden administration on Thursday released its plans for removing the nation’s lead pipes, announcing that the EPA would begin to develop new regulations for lead and copper pipes — allowing a long-delayed Trump administration rule to take effect.

While the White House provided few details about the plans, the EPA declared its intentions to strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions and said that it anticipates finalizing improvements to the rule prior to its initial compliance date, October 16, 2024.

The Trump administration’s rule proposes a variety of monitoring requirements for schools and daycares constructed prior to January 1, 2014. Water agencies would need to take five samples “once and on request of the facility thereafter” at elementary schools and daycares, as well as at secondary schools “on request.”

The school samples would need to occur at “two drinking water fountains, one kitchen faucet used for food or drink preparation, one classroom faucet or other outlet used for drinking, and one nurse’s office faucet, as available,” according to the proposed rule.

Recognizing the difficulties associated with monitoring and maintaining water quality in schools, the Northeastern researchers said they were aiming to characterize the magnitude of lead in school drinking water, as well as examine the ability of the EPA’s proposed five-sample approach to identify schools with fixtures that exceeded the state’s threshold.

Ultimately, the scientists found that 90 percent of the fixtures with samples that exceeded the threshold were located in just 376 Massachusetts schools — or just 34.4 percent of those sampled. 

While the schools that participated in the study tended to be larger — and had a lower percentage of African American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students — the researchers found that lead levels did not vary based on school demographics. 

The authors told The Hill they did not analyze whether the effected schools were situated in lower socioeconomic districts, although their study acknowledged that heightened lead exposure in lower income and minority households has been well-documented. 

After testing out the five-sample method, the scientists found that this strategy is effective at characterizing high lead contamination values — classifying levels greater than 10 parts per billion, which would require additional testing, and levels greater than 15 parts per billion, which would require corrective action. 

But the researchers said that they could not classify risk based on a much smaller, one ppb threshold, as 58 percent of initial samples exceeded that bar in more than 90 percent of schools — meaning that most schools would be at some increased risk of lead exposure.

“Based on our study findings, we think a tiered approach for addressing lead in schools is needed due to the large occurrence of fixtures >15 ppb,” Pieper told The Hill.

“There needs to be more data and knowledge generated about childcare facilities,” she added. “And there needs to be funding focused on testing in schools as well as remediation of fixtures releasing lead.” 


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